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Developer Put on Probation in Bribe Case

Courts: Judge cites his long community service, cultural differences over 'gratuities' for officials. U.S. prosecutors wanted prison time for payoff; they may pursue appeal.

April 23, 2002|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a blow to prosecutors, a federal judge sentenced a real estate developer Monday to three years' probation for paying a $4,000 bribe to the mayor of Huntington Park.

U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. rejected a government request that developer Harry Hwang, 49, be sentenced to three years in prison.

Hwang, who lives in Hancock Park, pleaded guilty to making the payment to Mayor Richard Loya for his support of a proposed $110-million shopping center in Huntington Park.

Prosecutors said Loya went to the FBI after receiving a bribe offer and wore a concealed recording device during several subsequent meetings with Hwang.

Hatter, departing significantly from federal sentencing guidelines, cited what he said were extenuating circumstances in the case.

They included Hwang's extensive record of community service; cultural differences between his native Korea and the U.S. over giving gratuities to public officials; and the possibility that Hwang might have been enticed into making the bribes.

The U.S. attorney's office, which maintains that Hwang acted freely and willingly, said it is considering asking the Justice Department for permission to appeal Hwang's sentence.

"We made the best argument we could to the judge," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel N. Shallman. "He obviously disagreed, but we will continue to prosecute these public corruption cases to the fullest extent possible to send a strong message to those who would make payoffs and those who take them."

Hwang, who emigrated to the United States 21 years ago, appeared in court with about 30 relatives and friends. He apologized for his crime.

While awarding him probation, the judge ordered Hwang to spend six months in a halfway house with weekends off, partly to deal with a drinking problem. He also was fined $10,000.

Hatter said he had received more than 100 letters of support from Hwang's relatives, friends and business acquaintances, including an especially moving one from the defendant's 17-year-old daughter.

In seeking probation, defense lawyer Brian Hennigan argued that the payments to Loya were "gratuities" as opposed to "bribes" because they were given without any specific quid pro quo.

Shallman disputed that claim, citing excerpts from secretly record conversations between Hwang and the mayor.

Hwang pleaded guilty to two counts of bribery.

The bribery case grew out of his bid to develop a huge retail and entertainment center in the city.

According to federal authorities, Hwang sought Loya's help in getting a $7-million city subsidy for the project.

In exchange, they said, Hwang offered to make Loya the development's property manager after he left office.

Hwang also proposed laundering campaign contributions to the mayor through tenants at a mini-mall he owns, they said.

Finally, federal authorities said, Hwang offered to pay for a cruise that Loya and his wife were planning to take to Mexico.

FBI agents videotaped Hwang outside the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles in August as he handed Loya an envelope containing $4,000 in $100 and $20 bills.

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