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Councilmember John Lee protests LA City Ethics Commission’s accusations

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Good morning! It’s Tuesday, October 10. We’ve just celebrated Columbus Day on Monday. 
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John Lee, 12th District Councilmember in Los Angeles City Council, was accused of ethics violations by LA City Ethics Commission on October 2. [Screen capture from abc7 News]

Councilmember John Lee, the sole Korean American incumbent on the Los Angeles City Council, is facing a significant political crisis following allegations of ethics violations by the LA City Ethics Commission on October 2.

The commission has lodged a total of 10 counts of ethics violations against Councilmember Lee, citing breaches of the City’s Ethics Code. These allegations stem from three specific cases — two trips to Las Vegas in 2016 and 2017 and an event in LA Koreatown in 2017. Across the three cases, the commission has detailed 2 counts of accepting excess gifts, 3 counts of failing to disclose gifts, 4 counts of misuse of position, and 1 count of aiding and abetting misuse of position, applying multiple charges for each case.

The commission alleges that Councilmember Lee accepted and failed to disclose a total of $7,830 in entertainment expenses, which encompassed items such as hotel stays, transportation, and club expenditures during his trips to Las Vegas in 2016 and 2017. Notably, during this period, Lee served as the chief of staff to then-Councilman Mitchell Englander, who, coincidentally, was sentenced to prison in 2020 for accepting bribes during the Las Vegas trip in 2017.

Another allegation involves an event in 2017, where Lee allegedly participated in a poker game with a businessman, lobbyist, and developer at an establishment in LA Koreatown. The commission contends that the businessman paid a total of $800 for drinks during this gathering.

Councilmember Lee vehemently denies these ethics violation charges and has pledged to defend himself against them. Lee’s office has promptly protested the allegations, describing them as “completely false.” In particular, the councilman contests that the commission “drastically inflated the amount of food and beverages Lee consumed during a June 2017 trip in Las Vegas” and points out that he had no issues with the FBI’s investigation into Councilmember Englander’s case, having fully disclosed his bank accounts. He also claimed to have no recollection of the Koreatown case in 2017. “I will vigorously fight these baseless accusations,” Lee stated.

Lee suspects that there may be political motives behind these accusations, especially given the timing, as they pertain to events from five years ago, seemingly surpassing the four-year statute of limitations. He speculates that this move is an attempt to influence the upcoming election. Notably, these allegations were not raised during his 2019 by-election or the 2020 election. The commission’s sudden decision to pursue the case in June of this year, along with document reviews commencing in August, has raised questions about its timing.

In light of these developments, it is imperative that the Ethics Commission conducts the remainder of the process with fairness, transparency, and objectivity. Should the allegations prove to be unsubstantiated and politically motivated, as Councilmember Lee suspects, it would have significant repercussions.

Despite the ongoing controversy, Councilmember Lee has continued his duties, as evidenced by his participation in a recent session welcoming community members to the council chambers for Filipino Heritage Month. Notably, this session proceeded without the disruptions and name-calling that have characterized previous corruption allegations against public officials.

For now, Lee’s office has announced its decision to abstain from making public comments on the matter. They will closely monitor public opinion and remain prepared for any future actions taken by the Ethics Commission. The unfolding events will undoubtedly shape the political landscape as Councilmember Lee endeavors to clear his name amidst the swirling allegations.

By Mooyoung Lee    lee.mooyoung@koreadaily.com