The Englander Indictment: What Next For John Lee?

John Lee's Facebook profile pic. 
by L.J. Williamson

After the jarring arrest of former City Councilmember Mitchell Englander dropped jaws all over Los Angeles, heads swiveled next toward his successor and protégé, Councilmember John Lee.

Englander was arrested by federal agents on criminal charges that he obstructed an investigation into accepting cash, female escort services, hotel rooms and expensive meals from a businessman during trips to Las Vegas and Palm Springs, and later lied to the FBI about his conduct.

In response, Lee issued a statement that he had in fact been along for the ride in Vegas, but had made an effort to reimburse expenses and was "unaware of any illegal activities for which Councilmember Englander is being charged."

Englander's indictment is a gripping read. The vacationers in the former councilmember's entourage included Lee and a businessman "seeking to increase his business opportunities in the city," who was later identified by the Los Angeles Times as Andrew Wang. The indictment also includes an unnamed lobbyist, a developer, and the special assistant to another city councilmember. Wang treated his fellow travelers to lavish perks, including $1,000 in casino chips, a $2,481 dinner, a limo ride to a nightclub where the party ordered $34,000 in bottle service, and for Englander, a bonus envelope stuffed with $10,000 in cash. When the night wound down and Englander returned to his Wang-funded hotel room, the indictment says the businessman paid around $300-400 in cash to two escorts and sent one to Englander's room to "provide him with services."

Lee's self-portrait as an innocent tag-along may help him slip from the snare that has his former boss facing up to 50 years in federal prison, but his conduct is less likely to escape the notice of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, two former federal prosecutors said.

Neama Rahmani
Neama Rahmani, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and the former Director of Enforcement at the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, said it's possible, but unlikely, that the DOJ has plans to charge Lee, or they would have already done so. "Usually, the U.S. Attorney’s Office indicts and arrests the people they intend to charge at once, because unindicted individuals may attempt to flee, destroy evidence, etcetera."

(Disclosure: I work as an independent contractor for a firm that also has a business relationship with Rahmani).

If the government has damning evidence against Lee that points to possible involvement as a principal, accessory, or co-conspirator, the best thing he can do is cooperate with the government, Rahmani said. That cooperation may take many forms, including testifying as a witness in the case against Englander.

"My best guess is that Lee is probably cooperating," agreed Laurie Levenson, a former assistant United States attorney and professor at Loyola Law School. Levenson didn't absolutely rule out charges for Lee, unless he has worked out an immunity and/or cooperation deal. "From reading the indictment, I'm not sure they absolutely need him as a witness, so that might work against him," Levenson speculated, but added that that unless he too was caught lying to investigators, he probably won't be charged.

Lee's mere presence on the extravagant Las Vegas trip isn't enough to make him part of the bribery, because criminal charges require knowledge of the criminal activity, Rahmani said. Lee will more than likely tell prosecutors, as he told the public, that he knew nothing about Englander's cash envelope deal, easing his escape from federal charges.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Laurie Levenson
However, ethics violations do not necessarily have the same exacting standards as criminal charges, Levenson said, "so he might have some issues there."

The bar for being found guilty of an ethics violation is far lower than the bar for being found guilty in a criminal proceeding, Rahmani explained, and Lee's participation in the trip may easily meet that threshold.

The Ethics Commission has subpoena power and can issue fines, but doesn't typically remove people from office over violations. But they can, if they believe a crime has been committed, work closely with the District Attorney's office to secure a prosecution.

Though it doesn't rise to the level of a crime, Rahmani said, if the commission finds an ethics violation, "it can be a scarlet letter for elected officials. It’s really bad politically."

An ethics violation doesn't have to require criminal intent. Accepting a gift without reporting it can be a violation. And the term "gift" is broad, including anything of value, such as travel or a hotel room.

Lee's statement that he attempted to reimburse for the Las Vegas expenses is "way too little, too late," Rahmani said. "There is a window to reimburse. It’s days, it’s not months or years. And it's not just about reimbursement, it's about reporting."

In response to a request for comment, Lee's spokesperson Grace Yao said "as this is an ongoing legal proceeding, Councilmember Lee wants to respect the process and will not be making any comment at this time."

GHSNC President Dave Beauvais
Though the final verdicts from the Department of Justice and the Ethics Commission remain to be seen, consequences from Lee's Council District 12 constituents are already taking shape.

Dave Beauvais, President of the Granada Hills South Neighborhood Council, has sent a letter to Lee's office calling for his immediate resignation, and is urging the leaders of other neighborhood councils in the district to follow suit.

Beauvais' letter, also signed by neighborhood council members Carlos Amador, Julie Carson, Mark Morris, Brad Smith, Colleen Toumayan, and Ross Turmell, chides, "the fact you even contemplated and then decided to run for Councilmember knowing this would eventually come out and irrevocably taint your office is incomprehensible to me."

Beauvais said he wrote the letter because he anticipates Lee will simply cut a deal and walk away from federal charges. But as neighborhood council members, "Every two years, we have to sit down for two hours and take a course on the ethics requirements for the City of Los Angeles, and we do that as volunteers -- we're required to follow same ethical standards as any paid official in the city," he said. And that requirement, for Beauvais, drives home the gravity of the Councilmember Lee's ethics violations. "That’s standard operating procedure: you reveal anything that might be even thought to be a conflict of interest, and you recuse where you think there may be one. And Lee's trip is a clear conflict of interest."

Bylaws prohibit the City Ethics Commission from commenting on ongoing matters until their work is complete, but Rahmani said he would be "very surprised if there is not a full-blown investigation into this."

Will that investigation create problems for Lee?

"Without having reviewed the evidence, but based on what I've read, absolutely yes," Rahmani said. "He was on the trip to Las Vegas. It's an unreported gift. That's a bad admission."


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