Column: Corruption 'feels like a betrayal.' What motivates U.S. Atty. E. Martin Estrada

In mid-January, U.S. Atty. E. Martin Estrada stood in front of a bouquet of microphones with a phalanx of prosecutors behind him. Their somber faces matched that of their boss, even though the group was celebrating.

A federal judge had just sentenced former Los Angeles Councilmember Jose Huizar to 13 years in prison for his role in a sprawling corruption scheme that continues to stain L.A. politics.

To the English-language media, Estrada — dressed in a sharp gray suit with a U.S. Department of Justice pin clasped to his lapel — inveighed against Huizar for abusing “his power to use City Hall as his personal ATM.” His remarks in Spanish weren’t as long — but were harsher.

“Jose Huizar,” he stated in a deep, deliberate voice, “traicionó a su propio pueblo” — betrayed his own people. Estrada hadn’t used that line in English.

Since becoming U.S. attorney for the Central District of California in the fall of 2022, the 46-year-old Estrada has overseen one headline-grabbing case after another. Convictions for civic corruption scandals in Los Angeles and Anaheim. A lawsuit against City National Bank that resulted in a $31-million settlement over allegations it avoided loans to buyers in Black and Latino neighborhoods. Charges against white supremacists for sparking riots at protests. Investigations into illegal gambling rings, with the name of Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani recently surfacing. (Ohtani alleges his former interpreter stole the money that was wired from his bank account to a bookie.)

Estrada heads the most populous federal judicial district in the country, with more than 25 million residents across seven Southern California counties. He’s the public face of U.S. law in the region. To hear him so effortlessly code-switch — deliver the same message differently depending on audience — struck me as bold yet smart. What kind of fed was hip enough to do that?

I caught up to Estrada shortly after the press conference to ask why he decided to be more pointed en Español.

“It’s extremely personal for the Latino community,” Estrada replied, as he hurried off to speak at a UCLA School of Law symposium on hate crimes. “Too often, we saw this conduct in our home countries. We fled that corruption, and to see someone conduct themselves in that manner feels like a betrayal.”

I reminded him of that conversation last month in his spacious 12th-story office at the old federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. A bowl of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate cups lay at the center of the table where we sat; his stand-up work desk was behind us. Newspaper and magazine articles hanging on the wall from his career as a federal prosecutor and private attorney competed for space with art prints, photos of heroes like Dolores Huerta and shelves packed with commemorative mugs from the grueling Baker to Vegas relay, which he ran until recently.

“We did excellent work for Southern California, important work for Southern California,” Estrada said, referring to Huizar’s conviction. He’s of average height and as taut in demeanor as his lacquered, high fade haircut. “A lot of times, the DOJ likes to operate in obscurity. And there’s a lot of mystery to the Department of Justice, but it’s important people know that we’re here as a check.”

U.S. Attorney E. Martin Estrada

U.S. Atty. E. Martin Estrada walks with his legal team to a news conference after a jury found former Los Angeles Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas guilty of corruption on Thursday, Mar. 30, 2023.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

He was born in Brooklyn to parents who fled poverty and a repressive government in Guatemala. The family regularly returned to the Central American country to visit relatives — and during one of those vacations, they were robbed at gunpoint.

“We immediately go to the police station, and they just laughed and laughed at the whole thing,” he recalled. “We don’t have a perfect system [in the United States]. But we do have a law enforcement that cares and wants to protect people. And that was critical to me to seeing the difference [with] here.”

The Estradas eventually moved to Costa Mesa. In seventh grade, Estrada binge-watched Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary series for a school project, only to get an F after a teacher accused him of plagiarism. At Mater Dei, a teacher wouldn’t let him take AP history despite having straight As, claiming he wouldn’t succeed.

“There is a little bit of a chip on your shoulder you get from that,” he admitted. “But every time you get these rejections, every time you get people questioning, you see that as an opportunity to prove them wrong.”

Estrada settled on law as a UC Irvine undergrad, after volunteering for the Legal Aid Society and realizing “you can help people in their most dire times” in the courtroom. He didn’t even know what a U.S. attorney did until landing a summer job in the office’s Santa Ana branch while attending Stanford Law School. He helped prepare motions for a successful corruption case against former Santa Ana Councilmember Ted Moreno and another case where a Latino gang kept blocking Black people from using a park.

“I remember writing up a civil rights memo and thinking, ‘This is exactly the type of work I should be doing,’” Estrada said.

He ping-ponged between the U.S. attorney’s office and private practice throughout his career, focusing on organized crime in the former position and civil rights in the latter. His most prominent private case involved the fight over Bruce’s Beach, a piece of coastal property in Manhattan Beach taken from a Black couple over a century ago.

As the lead attorney for the descendants of the original owners, Estrada helped defeat a lawsuit that sought to prevent Los Angeles County from transferring the property back to his clients. The groundbreaking case has inspired actions across the United States trying to address similar historical wrongs.

While the Bruce’s Beach lawsuit was happening, the Hispanic National Bar Assn. approached Estrada in early 2022 to gauge his interest in becoming the region’s U.S. attorney.

“And the first thing I thought,” Estrada said with a straight face and tone, “was kind of like the line from ‘Wayne’s World’: ‘I’m not worthy.’”

His law partners suggested that he drop out of the Bruce’s Beach case because “it could upset people,” he recalled. “But I said, ‘This is too important to worry about politics. Let the chips fall where they may.’”

President Biden nominated Estrada to head the Central District of California in June 2022; the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed him three months later. Estrada is the first U.S. attorney of Guatemalan descent in the nation.

He welcomes “the idea that there’s additional responsibilities, there’s additional obligations” as a Latino in such a powerful position. One of the first cases he was assigned as an assistant U.S. attorney was the extradition of suspects in the murder of Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, an undercover DEA agent tortured to death in Mexico in 1985.

“I was one of a handful of Latinos, one of the few [in the office] who could speak Spanish,” Estrada said. “My takeaway was also it’s a sad commentary on the diversity of the legal profession. You know, the new guy is the one put in there because they don’t know anyone else. So it’s been a big emphasis point for me that our office should more closely reflect the beautiful diversity” of Southern California.

Assistant Atty. Gen. Kristen Clarke, right, and U.S. Atty. E. Martin Estrada

Assistant Atty. Gen. Kristen Clarke, right, and U.S. Atty. E. Martin Estrada announce a proposed settlement of the government’s lending discrimination lawsuit against City National Bank.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

We talked about his desire to double down on environmental crimes, consumer protections, civil rights and white supremacist groups in Southern California (“They’re so sophisticated, using things like the dark web, preying on kids, manipulating kids’ minds to get them on their side,” he said of the white supremacists.)

But I was most curious about civic corruption. While emphasizing that he doesn’t see Los Angeles as any more corrupt than other cities, Estrada did criticize what he feels is a political culture that has allowed elected officials to amass power “somewhat unchecked.” He mentioned Huizar and Mark Ridley-Thomas, the L.A. political heavyweight sentenced last summer to 3½ years in prison for fraud and bribery. (Ridley-Thomas is appealing his conviction).

“If you allow these types of things to fester, they grow and they can destroy democracy,” Estrada said. “[The law] has gotta apply to everyone. And if you have the powerful, whether it be politicians or corporate executives, able to get away with things that other people can’t, that creates cynicism.”

Any other L.A.-area political corruption cases in the works?

He began to answer, smiled, then stopped. “We will continue to be vigilant in this area,” he finally responded.

Had to ask!

Does Estrada think of himself as a crusader?

“I wouldn’t use that term,” he said, then thought for a bit. “I would say I’m a child of Southern California. It means a great deal to me to do the right thing by my people. And that’s why I’m in this job.”

As our hour wrapped up, I asked what message he had for Southern Californians.

“I am here for you.”

And for the bad guys?

“We are a very resourceful, organized, sophisticated office. We track some of the most dangerous actors in this district. You may not know it, but we’re tracking it. We investigate quietly, but when we charge, we are aggressive, and we make sure there’s full accountability.”

Let the chips fall where they may.

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