'Your Honor! This is proper!' Harland Braun gives his opening statement in ex-L.A. deputy mayor Raymond Chan's federal corruption trial
Chan faces decades in prison if convicted in a 12-count indictment alleging a bribery scheme with ex-L.A. City Councilman José Huizar and wealthy real estate developers.
The $8,000 bottle of Cognac prompted the first sustained objection.
Defense attorney Harland Braun was a couple minutes into his opening statement in former deputy Los Angeles mayor Raymond Chan’s corruption trial on Tuesday when he segued from 10 people gathering at Chan’s house for Kung Fu lessons and Chan turning down $20,000 to Chan’s apparent contact with the pricey bottle of French brandy.
“Sustained,” U.S. District Judge John F. Walter said after Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Har objected to the rambling as irrelevant under Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence.
Braun sort of turned his attention back to the 12 felony charges against his client, which center on a pay-for-play bribery scheme that prosecutors say Chan helped disgraced former Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar facilitate with wealthy real estate developers. Chan led the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety from May 2013 to June 2016, then was deputy mayor of economic development from June 2016 to June 2017.
Braun told the jury Chan was born in China. “He does speak a foreign language. Still not a crime to speak a foreign language,” he said. He also said early in his statement, “Chinese this. Chinese that.”
A licensed attorney in California since 1968, Braun’s storied history in Los Angeles legal circles includes his successful defense of John Landis and George Folsey Jr on manslaughter charges arising from a deadly helicopter crash during the 1982 filming of “Twilight Zone: The Movie” that killed two children and an adult. He also successfully defended one of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King in 1992.
But he fumbled through pre-trial proceedings in Chan’s case, and his opening statement Tuesday was rambling, sometimes incoherent and often interrupted with sustained objections. At one point, Judge Walter said, “I don’t know where this is going, but it’s not going very far, because the objection is sustained.”
Still, it wasn’t all bad for Braun: Walter overruled a few of Har’s objections, including one for improper argument that prompted Braun to shout, “Your Honor! This is proper!” and point at Walter before the judge said, “Overruled.”
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Braun also prevailed when he displayed a dollar bill for jurors and said, “Here’s a dollar a bill. If I gave this to a witness, I should be in jail.” Walter overruled Har’s objection for improper argument, so Braun continued, making the point that “prosecutors can talk to criminals and make deals,” but the true culprits aren’t the prosecutors, “they’re the defense attorneys.” He said Chan “trusted George Chiang,” his former business partner who’s pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and is expected to testify against Chan.
“Now all of a sudden, Chiang turned out to be a crook,” Braun said.
Har introduced jurors to Chiang in her opening, which continuously reiterated three goals for Chan and Huizar that she listed for jurors on the courtroom TV screens: “Get Money” “Keep Power” “Avoid the Feds”.
She told them of Chan’s secret deal with Chiang to secure a “cushy landing spot” with a consulting company that would enable him to continue helping developers bribe Huizar after he retired from his city job. Chiang had connections to wealthy developer Fuer Yuan’s Jia Yuan USA Co., a subsidiary of the China-based Shenzhen Hazens that planned to redevelop the Luxe City Center Hotel on South Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles.
Chan worked with facilitate bribes with Huizar for the company, Har said, just as he did for developer Wei Huang and his plans to turn the 13-story L.A. Grand Hotel Downtown into a 77-story skyscraper through his company Shen Zhen New World I LLC. Huang’s bribes to Huizar included $600,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit that Har said was a “full-blown political crisis” threatening Huizar’s 2018 re-election. Huang fled the U.S. after the case broke and is considered a fugitive, Har said.
Along with Chiang, Huizar’s former assistant George Esparza is expected to testify. Esparza pleaded guilty to racketeering in 2020, as did Chiang.
Huizar, meanwhile, took a plea deal last month that says prosecutors will recommend he spend no more than 13 years in prison. Har told jurors on Tuesday that they’ll hear testimony from Huizar’s estranged wife, Richelle Rios. But she never mentioned the former 15-year councilman, who’s awaiting sentencing, as a witness.
Har did, however, mention current city employee Kevin Keller, who currently is Mayor Karen Bass’ transition deputy mayor of economic development. He’ll be testifying for prosecutors, including about a meeting he attended involving Chan and Huang that was unlike anything else he’d seen, Har said.
Braun managed to laud Chan’s accomplishments and contributions to the city and delivered what could be a key point in his defense narrative: While Chan had connections to Huizar, “he didn’t have the power to force people how to vote in the Planning Commission.” He also repeatedly emphasized that Chan never joined Huizar and his associates on their Vegas junkets with the wealthy real estate developers with whom prosecutors say Chan helped facilitate bribes. In fact, “he advised Huizar that it looked bad to go to Vegas with a developer.”
“If you don’t go to Vegas, that’s a bribe,” Braun said sarcastically. “Aiding and something you didn’t do - that’s the government’s case.”
Braun tried to be funny, delivering memorable lines such as “My wife is partly Italian; I don’t go anywhere without a bottle.“ But the overall package was a rambling mess, void of any coherent preview of his evidence beyond repeated assurances that jurors will see Chan’s good work and that Chan will, in fact, take the stand to testify in his own defense.
“He’s going to testify. I don’t care what the law is,” Braun said, referring to a jury instruction regarding Chan’s right not to. “He’s going to establish without any doubt that he’s innocent.”
He also said jurors will hear good things about Chan on some of investigators’ covert recordings.
“And you know what? Thank God they did a wire tap,” Braun said.
Braun sometimes veered into territory Walter had expressly forbidden such as his assertion that federal agents targeted Chan because he’s Chinese and any mention of prosecutors’ alleged illegal tactics.
Braun repeatedly pointed at Har and her co-counsel, assistant U.S. attorneys Brian Faerstein, Cassie Palmer and Mack Jenkins, during his opening, turning away from the lectern to face them as they sat in the first row of the gallery.
At one pointed, he gestured toward their exhibit binders and said, “They need all this evidence? No, they don’t. This shows they don’t have a case.”
Braun summed up the sprawling corruption case this way: “The result of this case is we lost two huge hotels.”
Trial continues today with testimony from an FBI agent. I’m not there, but I plan to check out more testimony soon. Stay tuned.
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Jose Huiuzar's attorneys were granted a 2nd one year postponement of trial start date due to need for extra time to review voluminous prosecution evidence.
It seems attorney Braun didn't waste too much time brooding over the evidence, instead taking a much different approach to defense strategy.
Braun is going for the mistrial. with an unannounced and interminable medical issue.
Braun chose as co-councel a recent law school graduate learning the ropes, so can't be expected to carry Chan defense alone.
Braun hired to get medical absence mistrial for Chan. Judge Walter can joke, he knows the game.