The fact that federal authorities, rather than local investigators, arrested Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar in a huge racketeering-bribery scheme speaks poorly for the county and city watchdogs who are supposed to keep politics and government clean. 

Where was the district attorney’s Public Integrity Division, created almost 20 years ago to root out corruption in Los Angeles County’s 84 cities and multitude of public agencies?  What about the Los Angeles city attorney attorney’s office? True, City Atty. Mike Feuer is limited to investigating misdemeanors, crimes less serious than those attributed to Huizar.  But his office is   the legal advisor to the City Ethics Commission, responsible for keeping politics free of corruption.  

And what about the Ethics Commission itself?  Why weren’t its five members in the forefront of the Huizar case?

One of the most significant lessons of the Huizar affair is that the D.A.’s public integrity division must be strengthened.  The same goes for the overly cautious Los Angeles city attorney’s office. And the weak Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, on which I served for five years, badly needs a dose of courage, not to mention autonomy from the city council.

Los Angeles public sleuths should have uncovered Huizar’s alleged bribery scheme five years ago when he and others formed an enterprise known as “CD-14 Enterprise” (Huizar represents the 14th council district). Their goal, according to the federal complaint, was bribery, extortion and fraud.

 “This case pulled back the curtain on rampant corruption at City Hall,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna. “Councilman Huizar violated the public trust to a staggering degree, allegedly soliciting and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from multiple sources over many years. Using the power of his office to approve or stall large building projects, Huizar worked through a web of other corrupt city officials, lobbyists, consultants and developers to line his pockets and maintain his hold on Council District 14, which he turned into a money-making criminal enterprise that shaped the development landscape in Los Angeles.”

Huizar’s power was well known throughout city hall and among the lawyers and lobbyists who are paid to influence Mayor Eric Garcetti and the 15 members of the city council. Huizar was chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, known as PLUM, because serving on it is a plum spot for council members raising campaign contributions.

The U.S. attorney’s 116-page complaint against Huizar is an illustrated guide to how he wielded this power.  It includes a picture, recorded by a casino’s camera, of what the feds said was Huizar cashing in chips given him by a billionaire land developer and accepting from the cashier a substantial pile of bills.

Shoe leather–and electronic—detective work uncovered the affair.  The Justice Department said it interviewed more than 75 people, executed more than 50 search warrants and examined phone records and email accounts.

None of this should have been beyond the D.A.’s public integrity division, the city attorney’s office or the Ethics Commission.  Together, they have legal, investigative and computer resources to get to the bottom of such schemes.

But they weren’t up to the challenge. 

As an example of past failures, one of the public integrity division’s biggest cases involved bribes and kickbacks between officials of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and people who did business with the stadium.  The 2016 scandal was uncovered by Los Angeles Times reporters.  In the end, prosecutorial errors wrecked the case.  Gerald Uelmen, retired Santa Clara University law school professor, said the D.A. mishandled evidence.  Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy, presiding over the case, said the public integrity division, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “seemed incapable of handling complex prosecutions involving large numbers of documents.”

I asked my friend Robert Stern for his opinion on the matter. He was the first general counsel of the California Fair Political Practices Commission and a principal co-author of state and Los Angeles city campaign financing and ethics laws.

He proposes several ways of strengthening the ethics commission.  One would permit the ethics commission to bypass the developer dominated city council and go directly to the voters with reform proposals.

 “Amend the charter to allow the ethics commission by a vote of four of its five members to put amendments to the charter or ordinances without a vote of the council.  This is what happens in San Francisco,” he told me in an email.

His second solution would be dynamite. “Give the commission the power to file criminal charges and mandate at least one day and one night in jail for anyone convicted of an ethics or campaign finance violation “he said.

That’s advice from the man who wrote the law.  We should listen to him.