The case of former Orange County Democratic Party Executive Director and political consultant Melahat Rafiei continued to roil Irvine politics this past week, as the press and public strained to figure out which former City Councilmembers Rafiei allegedly tried to bribe in 2018 while the current City Council grappled with the issue of starting its own investigation into Rafiei.
Last May, it was revealed by the FBI that Rafiei — who managed the campaigns of Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan and Councilmember Tammy Kim in 2020 — was a “cooperating witness” in its investigation of corruption in Anaheim, secretly recording meetings she had with Anaheim officials. The FBI noted in an affidavit at the time that Rafiei agreed to cooperate after being arrested in 2019 for allegedly attempting to bribe two Irvine Councilmembers on behalf of a client who wanted to establish a cannabis business in the City.
When news first broke, Khan and Kim initially posted comments of support for Rafiei. Kim reversed herself two days later, condemning the attempted bribery charge without naming Rafiei specifically. Khan eventually said she had dropped Rafiei as a consultant on her 2022 re-election campaign, but has continued to call Rafiei a friend.
Last week, federal prosecutors announced a plea deal with Rafiei that will see her plead guilty to one count of wire fraud. As part of the deal, federal authorities said that Rafiei also acknowledged trying to bribe two Irvine City Councilmembers in 2018, telling her cannabis client that one had asked for $25,000 and the other had requested $200,000. The payments were to be disguised as legal fees.
In 2018, the Irvine City Council had three practicing attorneys: then-Mayor and now-Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner, along with then-Councilmembers Melissa Fox and Jeff Lalloway.
Fox has issued a statement saying that she had given Rafiei a copy of her standard engagement agreement and a rate sheet in response to an inquiry in 2018, and had also provided those documents to the FBI as part of their investigation. Wagner has denied any knowledge of the matter. Lalloway has not made a public comment.
Meanwhile, City Manager Oliver Chi was quoted in Voice of OC as saying that Rafiei had contacted him on several occasions since the May 2022 revelations. Chi told Irvine Community News & Views this week that her calls were generally to get information on “whatever the issue du jour was … what was before the City Council” and they mostly came in the months leading up to the November election.
On January 24th, the City Council discussed the situation at some length, as Councilmember Kathleen Treseder requested a City investigation of Rafiei’s bribery scheme and also her continued involvement in Irvine. Kim seconded Treseder’s motion and distanced herself from her former campaign chief.
“I don’t have any connection or relationship” with Rafiei, Kim said. “She was one of my many consultants and I was one of many of her clients. I was probably one of the most insignificant clients that she had, in terms of my interactions.”
Actually, Kim’s campaign finance reports from the 2020 election list payments to only two campaign consultants, some $21,000 to Rafiei’s firm and another $6,000 to former Irvine Mayor Beth Krom.
Kim also stressed that she is less interested in what happened in 2018 than in Rafiei’s reported continuing involvement in Irvine. (As Vice Mayor, Kim would become Mayor should Khan vacate that position.)
For her part, Khan said, “I am not Melahat Rafiei, and there is no nexus between the allegations against her … and me or my office as Mayor.”
“It’s important for us to seek justice and make sure there is no corruption,” she added, “but more importantly putting out false information and accusing people falsely is even more dangerous.”
Councilmember Larry Agran spoke against a City investigation, recalling his experience as the target of a partisan, politically-motivated probe under the guise of an “independent investigation” almost a decade ago.
That so-called independent investigation, Agran said, “was a travesty. It was a reckless abuse of public authority. They managed to waste $2 million of Irvine taxpayer funds. They subpoenaed everybody and deposed all kinds of people, trying to find dirt on the Great Park Board. But, in the end it was clear — and they had to concede — there was not one penny of unauthorized spending at the Great Park and not one penny of unaccounted for funds.”
He noted that the accounting firm (HSNO) hired by the City was fined $500,000 by the California Attorney General and stripped of its license to practice in California because of its gross violations of professional standards in the Irvine “independent investigation.”
“Needless to say, I’m leery of these so-called independent investigations,” Agran said, “particularly when there is an ongoing FBI investigation.” Agran added that the City needs to fully cooperate with federal authorities in the public corruption probe to ensure that those involved in criminal conduct are brought to justice.
Agran said he’d like to see the City get to the root of the problem.
“It is no secret that we live in a ‘pay-to-play’ environment, awash in money and special interests, and some of that crosses the line into outright criminality,” he said. “I am sickened by public corruption, not only here in Irvine but in other cities in Orange County, and I think what we ought to be addressing is the larger pay-to-play environment that pervades every decision that is made here on this dais and elsewhere throughout Orange County.”
“I do understand Councilmember Agran’s points,” Kim acknowledged. “You do have very valid arguments.”
Nevertheless, Kim voted with Treseder to move forward with a City investigation, with Kim saying she wanted a quick 30-day investigation to “clear my name.” Agran, Khan and Councilmember Mike Carroll refused to support the motion, which failed 2-3.
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