A photo of wads of Australian cash stacked inside a car has become key evidence in a massive corruption probe rocking the halls of Los Angeles City Council.
The FBI and US federal prosecutors released the photo on Tuesday after announcing the arrest of Jose Huizar, a powerful LA councilman accused of leading a “pay-to-play” criminal enterprise.
He is the fifth person to be charged in the ongoing corruption investigation.
Huizar, 51, allegedly accepted $US1.5 million ($A2.2 million) in illicit benefits from developers, including lavish trips to Australia and Las Vegas funded by a Chinese billionaire who showered Huizar with casino chips.
“There are at least a dozen luxurious trips to casinos in the United States and abroad, where Mr Huizar was given over $US250,000 in gambling chips,” US Attorney for the Central District of California, Nick Hanna, told reporters on Tuesday.
The criminal complaint alleges Huizar flew to Australia in 2016 with a former aide, George Esparza, the Chinese billionaire, named in court documents by the alias “Chairman E”, and a fourth person known as “Executive Director E”.
The Chinese billionaire was hoping to build “the tallest building west of the Mississippi River” in Huizar’s downtown LA council district and provided $US800,000 in benefits to the councilman, according to prosecutors.
“On January 1, 2016, Huizar, Esparza, Chairman E, and Executive Director E travelled to Australia, where Huizar and Esparza accepted financial benefits from Chairman E, including private jet flights for Esparza, a $US10,980 commercial airline ticket for Huizar, hotels, meals, alcohol, and other expenses,” the criminal complaint states.
“In addition, Chairman E provided Huizar and Esparza casino chips, which Huizar and Esparza cashed out in Australian dollars.”
Esparza, who has entered a guilty plea to one count of conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisation (RICO) statute, is cooperating with authorities.
The photo of the Australian wads of cash sitting in a car, with Huizar’s council work schedule in the background, was allegedly taken by Esparza on his iPhone.
The criminal complaint details alleged text messages between Huizar and Esparza discussing how to convert the Australian dollars to US currency and avert bank reporting requirements.
“They are asking me for my drivers license and social security for IRS record. Do you think it’s fine to leave my info?” Esparza allegedly wrote.
Huizar allegedly responded: “No. Maybe we can change a little at a time … under 10k in the future”.
Huizar is charged with one count of conspiring to violate the RICO Act.
Authorities allege one developer provided Huizar with $US500,000 in cash in brown paper bags and when the FBI raided his home they found $US129,000 cash in a closet.