Los Angeles City Councilmember John Lee has been accused of violating government ethics laws as part of an investigation by the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.
Lee, who represents the 12th District, which encompasses the northwest half of the San Fernando Valley, is alleged to have accepted gifts in excess of the government set gift limit, allegedly failing to report gifts, misusing his position, and aiding and abetting another person’s misuse of a city position.
The other person in this instance is Mitchell Englander, a former Los Angeles City Councilmember who was sentenced to prison on federal corruption charges.
The investigation revolves around multiple trips to Las Vegas when Lee was serving as Englander’s chief of staff. During one of those trips in 2017, Lee allegedly accepted multiple gifts from a businessperson and a developer, most of which exceeded the allowable limit, the Ethics Commission states. That Vegas trip was a lynchpin in the case against Englander, which led to the former councilmember being sentenced to 14 months in prison.
Lee didn’t disclose the gifts, despite being required to, and never amended the required documents to disclose the existence of the gifts when he ran for City Council in 2019 and 2020, the Commission alleges.
The Ethics Commission findings are related to a previous wide-sweeping investigation spurred by the FBI and the United States Attorney’s Office into public corruption in the city of Los Angeles.
Part of the investigation included both Englander and Lee, and Lee is alleged to have attempted to mislead the federal investigators regarding the gifts received during the 2017 Vegas trip.
Lee eventually became the subject of an investigation by the Ethics Commission and a conference was held in late August to determine if there was probable cause. Lee was served with the nine-page accusation on Sept. 26, the Ethics Commission states.
The accusation details the laws that Lee is alleged to have broken, including two counts of accepting excess gifts, three counts of failing to disclose gifts, four counts of misusing a city position, and one count of aiding and abetting the misuse of a city position.
It’s important to note that the finding of probable cause does not mean a violation actually occurred. The Ethics Commission will convene for an evidentiary hearing to determine if the violations occurred, and what punishment could be handed down.
Only commissioners can determine if a violation occurred, and the maximum penalty that can be enforced is either $5,000 per violation or three times the amount of money that was improperly received — whichever is greater.
Lee released a statement Monday evening in which he called the accusation “misguided and based on conjecture instead of actual evidence.”
The councilmember denied either accepting any gifts or attempting to mislead federal investigators. He also said he did “not recall attending” a dinner in which the gifts were allegedly exchanged.
“Throughout this process, I have gone above and beyond to cooperate with the Commission’s investigation in the name of transparency. I have provided bank statements that corroborate what I recalled about this trip, sat for interviews, and have been transparent every step of the way. However, it became clear that Commission investigators are not interested in the facts,” Lee said. “They have preconceived notions about where their investigation should go and have ignored any exculpatory evidence they obtained.”
In the statement, Lee said he stood by his record, adding he refused to be “bullied by investigators that are seemingly more focused on garnering headlines than pursuing facts.”
The Ethics investigation is the latest instance of a City Council in turmoil, mired in controversy for the better part of a decade.
Just last month, former City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas was sentenced to three and a half years in prison after being convicted on corruption charges. In June, Councilmember Curren Price stepped down from his responsibilities amid charges of corruption by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office in an alleged pay-to-play scheme.
And last year, three city councilmembers were involved in a scandal after a secretly recorded conversation was leaked online in which they made disparaging and racist comments and discussed ways to expand and grow their influence in the city.
City Council president Nury Martinez, councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera were embroiled in controversy for weeks after the audio was released. Martinez and Herrera stepped down from their roles, Cedillo remained in his position until his term ended after he failed to win reelection prior to the scandal, and de León currently remains in power and has said he intends to seek re-election.
Both Englander and former councilmember Jose Huizar were charged for their roles in what became known as Operation “Casino Loyale.” Huizar pleaded guilty earlier this year to taking $1.5 million in bribes from developers as part of the massive corruption probe.