L.A. Political Scandal: City Council Member John Lee Accused Of Accepting Excess Gifts From Developer During Vegas Trip

Los Angeles City Councilman John Lee is facing accusations today from the city Ethics Commission of violating governmental ethics laws by accepting and failing to report excessive gifts, including some received during a trip to Las Vegas in 2017 that he took along with former Councilman Mitch Englander.

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In 2020. Englander pleaded guilty and was sentenced to federal prison for lying to federal investigators looking into his alleged receipt of excessive cash and gifts. Lee served as Englander’s chief of staff prior to being elected to the City Council.

“In 2016 and 2017, including during a 2017 trip to Las Vegas, Lee accepted multiple gifts from a businessperson and a developer, most of which exceeded the gift limit,” maintains a statement from the city Ethics Commission. “Lee failed to publicly disclose those gifts on the California statement of economic interests (Form 700) that he was required to file when he left city service, and he never amended the form to disclose the gifts when he ran for Council District 12 in 2019 and 2020.”

The city council has been rocked by a succession of scandals in the past few years. Two former councilmembers – Englander and Mark Ridley Thomas – were sentenced to federal prison. Another, José Huizar, plead guilty to federal racketeering and tax evasion charges earlier this year. A fourth councilperson, Kevin de León, has defiantly held onto his seat despite persistent calls for his resignation – including one from President Joe Biden – following his participation in a racially charged recorded conversation that led to former Council President Nury Martinez’s resignation. De León said recently he plans to seek reelection in 2024.

In a statement, Lee called the commission’s accusations against him “misguided and based on conjecture instead of actual evidence.”

“For the last 20 months, Commission investigators have wasted critical taxpayer resources to investigate a dinner in 2016 that I do not recall attending, have drastically inflated the amount of food and beverages I consumed during a June 2017 trip in Las Vegas during my final 11 days as a City Council staff member, and lodged accusations that are completely false,” Lee said.

“The commission falsely states that the FBI started an investigation into whether I accepted gifts. Further, they falsely state I attempted to mislead the FBI. Both accusations are categorically false. They fully know I
have never been a target or a subject of any federal investigation. 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.”

Lee maintained that “Commission investigators are not interested in the facts. They have preconceived notions about where their investigation should go and have ignored any exculpatory evidence they obtained.”

He also accused commission investigators of delaying their probe against him and filing public accusations to “line up with my 2024 re-election.”

According to the City Ethics Commission, the investigation began in 2020 following federal prosecutors’ announcement of an investigation into the 2017 Las Vegas trip, noting Lee’s involvement.

“A probable cause conference was conducted on August 31, 2023, and the attached accusation was served on Lee on September 26,” according to the commission. “The accusation details the laws that were allegedly violated and sets forth the acts with which Lee is charged: 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.”

The commission will now select an officer to conduct an evidentiary hearing, after which the commission
will determine if the allegations are true, and what penalty should be imposed. The maximum penalty is $5,000 per violation, or three times the amount of money that was allegedly improperly received or reported.

The allegations include that Lee was treated to a pair of pricey dinners by a businessperson and lobbyist, then was attended the trip to Las Vegas with a businessperson, lobbyist and developer. According to the commission, Lee was allegedly given a free hotel suite, transportation to and from the airport, $1,000 in gambling chips and bottle service at a nightclub that amounted to more $5,600 per person. Lee did not report receiving any gifts, according to the commission.

Lee, in his statement insisted he did not violate any ethics regulations.

“I also know my actions and stand by my record. I refuse to be bullied by investigators that are seemingly more focused on garnering headlines than pursuing facts, evidence and the truth, even at the expense of people’s reputations,” Lee said. “For these reasons, I will vigorously fight these baseless accusations and will never apologize for representing the people who live and work in Council District 12.”

District 12 covers the northwestern San Fernando Valley communities of Chatsworth, Granada Hills, Northridge, Porter Ranch, West Hills, North Hills, and Reseda.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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