An Irvine Corruption Fighter Has Her Own Ethical Issues

Irvine Councilwoman Christina Shea at a City Council meeting.

Adam Elmahrek/Voice of OC

Irvine Councilwoman Christina Shea at a City Council meeting.

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If Irvine Councilwoman Christina Shea has a political legacy, it’s her relentless fight to root out corruption surrounding the Great Park project.

The battle earned her near folk hero status among some Republicans in Orange County. They painted her vanquished foe and former City Council leader Larry Agran as the city’s corrupt boss, a Chicago-born Democrat who built a political machine that turned the Great Park into an ATM for campaign donors.

Now, emails and text messages have emerged that show another side of Shea, one that isn’t so different from those she’s crusaded against.

On multiple occasions since last year, Shea has contacted officials in the city’s planning department with special requests on behalf of Irvine-based KIA Motors America, which also happens to be Shea’s consulting client, according to records obtained by Voice of OC under the state’s Public Records Act.

In an interview, Shea denied doing anything wrong and asserted that the communications didn’t violate the city’s ordinances governing lobbying and ethics. She said she routinely helps businesses with City Hall issues, and that her consulting work for KIA had nothing to do with her efforts to help the Korean carmaker with requests at City Hall.

“I do this for any business that contacts me, any citizen that contacts me,” Shea said.

However, a good government expert said even if the communications weren’t illegal, they were unethical, and that Shea should “either work for KIA, or work for the city, but she really shouldn’t be doing both.”

“How does it look? It doesn’t look good,” said Bob Stern, co-author of the 1974 Political Reform Act.

‘As Soon As Possible’

In a text message Shea sent May 13 to Tim Gehrich, then acting director of community development, She asks Gehrich about plans that KIA had submitted at City Hall for renovating the “second floor CEO area” of their headquarters.

“Can you check to insure these get thru as soon as possible?” Shea wrote in her text.

Then in June, emails show, Shea again contacted city staff on behalf of KIA — this time regarding the company’s plan to install an onsite smoking area for company employees. And according to an email Gehrich sent to the city manager, Shea asked “whether staff could assist them in getting through the permitting process as efficiently as possible.”

Shea also contacted planning officials last year about allowing a vehicle platform to be raised 8 ft. high to showcase a new vehicle during Super Bowl Sunday, the records show. And in August, she contacted officials about changing the illumination of a KIA sign.

Shea says the texts and emails aren’t what they look like. In each instance, she was only asking for information or for KIA to be contacted, Shea said.

In the case of her text to Gehrich about the second floor renovation, Shea insisted that she only wanted to “expedite” a conversation between a KIA employee and a city staffer. In any event, Shea argued, it was a moot point because it turned out that KIA didn’t need to submit new plans to conduct the renovations.

“I can’t be asking to expedite any plans when they don’t have any plans,” Shea said.

As for Gehrich’s email claiming that she asked for the smoking area permitting to be done “as efficiently as possible,” Shea again said she was only asking for the KIA employee to be contacted soon, not for the permitting to be fast-tracked.

Regardless of what Shea might have meant, the records show Gehrich got a different message.

Shea’s May 13 text to Gehrich asking for help with processing renovation plans “as soon as possible” was sent early in the morning. Later in the day, she sent him another text asking whether “KIA can process this fairly quickly if possible?”

A few minutes later, Gehrich emailed Joseph Kirkpatrick, the city’s chief building official, and asked: “Any info on KIA as far as getting their plan check through quickly?”

Mysterious Consulting Work

City insiders have long known that Shea works as a consultant for KIA. But what exactly she does for KIA is a mystery, and Shea is reticent to answer questions about it.

At first, Shea said her work outside Irvine City Hall is a private matter and that she wouldn’t disclose the nature of her consulting for the carmaker. After being pressed by a reporter, she offered scant details that included work on “community relations,” donations to public agencies and “immigration issues.”

“I do community relations. I’ve done fundraising. Not fundraising… mostly I’ve worked on donations,” Shea said. “We’ve given money to Santa Ana. We’ve given money to organizations all over the county… what I do for KIA has nothing to do with City Hall… This is my private business, and I don’t need to go into detail.”

She didn’t say it in the interview, but an online profile for the Las Vegas-based WATB Group, which describes her as the company’s “local/federal government liaison,” states that she performs “government relations for KIA Motors America.” Her personal website states that she “provides government relations and sales consulting for KIA Motors America” and other companies.

Shea also wouldn’t disclose how many hours a week she works for KIA, or how much she is paid. Her statements of economic interest, forms public officials are required to file that disclose sources of income, only states that her consulting firm receives over $100,000 from two companies, one of them being KIA.

There are also other indications that Shea helps KIA with local government issues.

In 2010, the Orange County Fire Authority Board of Directors approved a borrowed vehicle agreement with KIA. At the time, Shea served on the board. According to the July 22 meeting minutes, then Director Bill Campbell pulled the item for comment so he could “acknowledge Director Shea’s effort to work with KIA Motors America, Inc.”

Shea “commended KIA Motors America, Inc. for continuing to give to the community,” the minutes read. She then abstained from voting on the agreement.

Legal Questions

At first glance, there are several local and state laws that Shea could be in danger of breaking. However, while her conduct might be unethical and the laws are intended to prevent it, an ethics expert and an attorney working for the city said she could be in bounds legally.

First there are the city’s ethics, ethical public service and lobbying ordinances, which were passed in 2006. The lobbying ordinance is perhaps the strictest in Orange County, prohibiting the part-time council members from working as lobbyists anywhere in the county.

Ironically, Shea and others saw theses laws as an attempt to target her consulting work and run her off council. Agran at the time said the lobbying ordinance was necessary because lobbying is “government for sale, by eBay.”

Shea’s actions might be construed as a violation of the ethics ordinance, but for a significant loophole. The ordinance bars council members from lobbying on behalf of clients at any public agency in the county – except the city.

Meanwhile, the lobbying ordinance requires lobbyists trying to influence City Hall to register with the city, but only if they are lobbying a “city body” such as the city council or planning commission. It explicitly exempts “policies such as permitting” that don’t come before a city body.

That means lobbying city staff behind the scenes likely isn’t covered by the ordinances.

Assistant City Attorney Jeff Melching said he reviewed the emails and text messages and found that they don’t violate the city’s ethics and lobbying ordinances.

“I looked at those communications, and I evaluated them against the ordinances and found no violations,” Melching told Voice of OC.

Melching wouldn’t elaborate on his legal position, or whether he thought Shea’s communications could be interpreted as lobbying.

The state’s Political Reform Act makes it an illegal conflict of interest for public officials to try and influence decisions at their public agencies. But according to Stern, it’s possible that the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces violations with fines, won’t go after Shea because the decisions on things like permits don’t rise to a significant monetary value for KIA.

“The question is how much is she being paid, and how much is the decision worth?” Stern said.

Shea is keenly aware of how to navigate the city’s lobbying and ethics ordinances. She repeatedly pointed to sections in the law that exempt her efforts to help KIA. Shea says since the law exempts her actions, they can’t be considered lobbying.

As a part-time council member, Shea said she only receives a small salary. She needs the consulting work to supplement her income, she said.

“I have to make a living,” she said. “There’s nothing there that’s inappropriate.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

  • Andy T.

    From personal experience, Christina Shea is by far the BEST one serving on the Irvine city council, she is a decent person, professional and compassionate. Mayor Choi could be a good man, but he can get confused and he is not able to tell when city staff members lie to him; this is sad but the “believe himself to be a gangster” city manager is a big liar, and he only surrounds himself with such characters. Krom talks well, but says NOTHING; she thinks she is citing facts, but she is in fact misrepresenting them. Lalloway is nothing more than a crappy divorce lawyer, who all of a sudden found himself with little power, so all he can do is showcase his bubble personality; he is vain, arrogant and ignorant. Last but not least, Schott is a Racist individual; she is another example of someone who could not believe the amount of power she has! don’t know how an online history teacher got to be there!! shame on us voters who elected her and Lalloway! Truly believe Mayor Choi has to step aside, the ethnic communities, mainly Korean, Chinese, Persian, Indian, …etc. must internally agree each on younger, educated, non-corrupt, smart & progressive thinking representatives that can run together as a slate in the next election, in order to leave the likes of Lalloway & Schott in the minorities. Next task must be the getting rid of current city manager and his associates, and hire a new group of expert professionals who could work with the large companies who have very good plans to advance Irvine, and make it a fun and affordable place to live, for the young generations of people of all colors.

  • Roger Butow

    Lobbyists must be registered with the State of California, the City Attorney should have clarified and provided more details about that topic. So of she’s acting as a lobbyist, then she should be openly declaring that function.
    Ms. Shea is not listed according to the State’s Cal Gov. website I browsed this am, so that legal nuance needs investigation, question asked and answered:
    http://cal-access.ss.ca.gov/Lobbying/Lobbyists/list.aspx?letter=S

    And she doesn’t need to visit Korea—-Mayor Choi is sitting up there with her.

    • LFOldTimer

      Don’t confuse us with the facts, Roger. Can’t you just learn to be a good Party member and support the status quo? Don’t you realize that they have our best interests at heart and sometimes must push the limits to deliver the best quality of life to our communities? Tolerance, Comrade! / sarc.

      • Ltpar

        If you clowns lived in Irvine and/or were not Agranista worshipers, you would know that Christina Shea and Steven Choi have done nothing but work in the best interests of the people of Irvine for many years. This happened even when they were in the minority and getting body slammed by Larry Agran at every meeting.

        • LFOldTimer

          Sorry, Lieutenant. I don’t judge politicians by which political party they belong to. I judge them by their acts or omissions. I smartened up and stopped playing the Party game many years ago. And who said I loved Larry Agran? I don’t play sides, man. Don’t you understand that? My opinions are based on actions and performance. Keep that in mind. And in this instance Shea gets an “F”.

  • LFOldTimer

    For some reason my logic is not sticking between your ears, Lieutenant. I know that most council people have to (or had to) work for a living. No problem there. The problem I have is when council people start comingling their employer’s needs with their council duties. When they start going to bat for their employers at City Hall it crosses certain ethical lines IMO. In most cases it’s not illegal.I know that. But it still stinks. Just like taking campaign donations from real estate developers and then voting to approve their applications to build new homes is not illegal but it raises eyebrows and rightly so. Someone not associated with KIA should plead their case with City Hall – not a council member who’s on their payroll. I don’t know how much more clear I can be. You apparently think it’s fine. I don’t. That’s the difference between you and me. Have a joyous Christmas.

  • LFOldTimer

    Most city council electeds are amateurs. They haven’t learned the ropes and make stupid mistakes. The ones who are able to circumvent the system and fool the electorate eventually rise to higher positions. They’re the ones who get the endorsements from the Republican and Democrat political committees. The slick ones made of teflon get rewarded by the party rulers. That’s what it takes to claw one’s way to the top in the seedy world of politics. Honest with integrity? Thank you for your application but currently we have no openings. We’ll call you if we get an opening commensurate with your qualifications. ha. 🙂

  • David Zenger

    So what’s the big secret about her “consulting?” Seriously, hon’ spill it.

    • LFOldTimer

      Maybe she drives a KIA hybrid and it evolved into a PR job.

  • LFOldTimer

    Most City Attorneys are water boys for the City Managers. Most do as they’re told. Legal watchdogs?? ha. My foot!!! 🙂

  • Nrgmavn

    Has anyone checked her 700 forms?

  • mutheta

    @Ltpar – You seem to have an issue that Adam did not take the City Attorney’s word that there was “… no conflict of interest or ethics issues…”
    If Adam and his colleagues believed the word of every attorney defending politicians or public employees, there would be no Voice of OC and then you couldn’t blame the publication on some leftist conspiracy.

  • Ron

    Ohhhh the irony. Shea is on both sides of the contact. It’s not a perceived conflict, it’s a conflict. She’s pushing her client’s agenda. At a minimum, she should abstain from acts on behalf of her client. But that won’t happen because Kia would have no reason to keep her on the payroll.

    • LFOldTimer

      “But that won’t happen because Kia would have no reason to keep her on the payroll”
      BINGO! Nail hit squarely on its head. Bullseye. And without Adam Elmahrek none of us would be the wiser! This stuff would happen and we’d all think she was pure as the wind driven snow. Merry Christmas! 😉

    • Ltpar

      Let’s see now, a City Council Member asking, not directing staff to process an application in a timely manner. Last time I looked, that was what staff was supposed to be doing anyway. Shea asked for no shortcuts, special considerations or anything outside the normal review process, just move the application along. In case you don’t know how government works, City Council Members do things like this for stakeholders in their community in all cities, not just Irvine. If I were a betting man, I would wager that even Jeff Lalloway has moved a few items along for his constituents which is his job to do.

      • David Zenger

        “I would wager that even Jeff Lalloway has moved a few items along for his constituents which is his job to do.”

        There’s a difference between a constituent and a client. Still, we won’t know what she really said and how it was said because the evidence is indirect.

  • Ron

    Ohhhh the irony. Shea is on both sides of the contact. It’s not a perceived conflict, it’s a conflict. She’s pushing her client’s agenda. At a minimum, she should abstain from acts on behalf of her client. But that won’t happen because Kiia wpuld have no reason to keep her on the payroll.

  • LFOldTimer

    Korean businessmen in Korea know how to grease the wheels to make them run very smoothly without a squeak. I wonder if or how many business junket trips Shea has taken to Korea to learn the tricks of the trade? Did you come across any of her travel itineraries in your investigation, Adam? I don’t like politicians mixing business with their official government duties. It tends to get very smelly. I just wonder what sort of compensation Shea collects from KIA? With so many inside requests on behalf of KIA – I feel that the People should have a right to know in furtherance on transparency and integrity in government. Even if not required by law, I feel that if a politician acts on behalf of a company, that pays him or her a compensation, in the government process – that the relationship should be an open book volunteered by the politician. There should be no lingering questions in the publics mind. Good article, Adam. You’re a first class investigative journalist. Has Zero Hedge ever made you an offer?

    • Ltpar

      I could be wrong but I don’t think Christina Shea has ever been to Korea. I believe the Korean Friendship City thing was handled by Mayor Choi and his staff. I also don’t recall seeing any big political campaign contributions from Kia Motors on Shea’s reporting forms. According to the article there were only two or three references to Shea asking staff to merely move along the Kia application in a timely manner. Doubt that would be worth much in the web of bribery you are trying to spin. Lastly, if Adam was remotely an investigative reporter he would have been all over the Larry Agran Housekeeper Obstruction of Justice case or the cover up of the City Managers DUI incident. He was a slient voice in both. Nope Adam is just another wannabee working for a fourth rate gossip rag. If he keeps it up, he might get hired by the Liberal O.C. and carry water for Dan the Man.

      • LFOldTimer

        Are you Christina Shea’s travel agent? Or does she telephone you every time she takes a trip to provide an update? ha. Why would KIA give Christina a campaign donation when she’s already on their payroll? All KIA has to do is give her a raise. A donation would look too suspicious. Can’t you figure that out on your own? And from what I’ve seen Adam Elmahrek is politically blind when targeting politicians for his articles. He was all over Pulido like a cheap polyester suit in a rainstorm. Pulido has a “D” after his name if you haven’t noticed. The VOC is the best investigative publication in the County hands-down. I learn something new with each article. Real eye openers. Norberto’s done a fine job and hired excellent help. VOC is offers great value to anyone interested in the underbelly of County government. No doubt it’s the most frequently read publication at the Hall of Administration. When they see Adam on the 5th floor I bet they dive under their desks! ha.

        • Rivett

          “Why would KIA give Christina a campaign donation when she’s already on their payroll?”

          That was my immediate reaction too, no point in KIA/Shea drawing any unnecessary attention.

          • LFOldTimer

            Common sense.

        • Ltpar

          I don’t know any more about what the Council does than you do, which is obviously nothing. I do read the local papers and they generally publicize foreign travel by council members. Opinions are like that part of the body you sit on, everybody has one. You are entitled to yours and I to mine. On the legitimate investigative reporter, I disagree and will go with Scott Moxley and the O.C. Weekly as being the best.

          • LFOldTimer

            Well, unless you are telepathic or have communicated with her personally about it don’t even venture a guess whether Shea has traveled to Korea. She’s on the KIA payroll in a government relations executive position for God sakes. Most execs who work for foreign based corporations generally visit the home office on at least one occasion. So my WAG would likely trump yours – the one that you sit on (in your words). Moxley is good. No doubt. But VOC offers great value and shines the sunlight in many places (county and cities) that the Weekly and the OC Register never touch with a 20 foot pole. For as many investigative reports we read on VOC the quality is excellent. I’ve never even seen a spelling or grammatical error. Those boys (and girls) are darn good. Norberto started with nothing and has turned his publication into a stellar long-toothed political watchdog that is second to none in the OC. Full disclosure: I’ve never met the man nor shook his hand. And I owe him nothing other than my thanks for pulling back the curtains.

  • Ltpar

    The OC Voice has now reached the level of “trash” comparable of the work of The Liberal OC. Your ethics allegations rise to something I would expect from from the Liberal, but no where else. My question to you Adam is who are serving as a shill for? You were told by the City Attorney there were no conflict of interest or ethics issues involved in Shea’s consulting relationship with Kia Motors, but you still wrote your dirt anyway. My bet your source and motivation would be the one pseudo conservative Council Member who frequently has temper tantrums because Christina Shea doesn’t buy into to his “bully boy” tactics. My thought is, he wants to intimidate Shea from running for reelection in 2016. I might remind you Mr. Lalloway that Christina Shea was working on behalf of Irvine citizens long before you showed up on the scene. Additionally, Christina has more credibility and popularity with voters than you will ever have. Your underhanded actions and refusal to work a a member of the Team Irvine is going to cost you not only supporters but votes when you run for Mayor in the next election.

    • RyanCantor

      “The OC Voice has now reached the level of “trash” comparable of the work of The Liberal OC”

      Whoa whoa whoa, Ltpar. There’s a L-O-N-G way to go down that sewer before getting anywhere near any comparison to Dan’s work.

      Let’s not get ridiculous.

      • @Dan Chmielewski

        yeah Ryan, I’m sure Shea spends her working day commenting on blogs while collecting a paycheck like you do regularly.

        • RyanCantor

          . . . Dan Dan Dan.

          Why you so ugly, bro?

          • Jacki Livingston

            *more popcorn* I am sensing some unresolved issues, here. Mano y mano, yaknow? So, who dumped who? Come on, let’s work this dysfunctional relationship out.

        • Jacki Livingston

          *munching popcorn, amused* Ladies, into your opposite corners….fight!

    • Kathleen Tahilramani

      There is no question about who you are a shill for…..and since when do reporters just take the word of a City Attorney that there is not a conflict? Do you honestly believe that we should just accept what we are told by government officials? So what is untrue about the “trash” written by the VOC. Guess you don’t like exposed garbage.

    • Jacki Livingston

      If Lady Christina cannot hold her own in the face of questions being raised regarding her ethics, perhaps she should find a new line of work. Let me assure you, pal, that I will question my elected officials, any time, and in any manner, I want. And they had better be ready to answer. That is their JOB. Crooked politicians, like….hmmmm….Spitzer, they hide behind their friends who bleat about how unfair it is, and try to label anyone who dares to question them, kind of like…well…YOU. VOC is asking relevant questions, and if Shea is so innocent, then SHE, not YOU, should step up and answer them. Her credibility just dropped ten points, thanks to you, because you look like her paid buddy mouthpiece. She’s a big girl, let her fight her own battles. I suspect that you have your own to handle.

      • Ltpar

        Jacki, I speak only for myself and no on else. I have known Christina Shea for at least 25 years and while supporting her in her campaigns and while considering her a friend am not her “buddy.” I agree she is an adult and can fight her own battles. She was working on behalf of the people of Irvine long before whiners like yourself and Dan C. happened on the scene. You need to face the facts, people like you and Dan backed the corrupt Larry Agran gang for over ten years until voters wised up and got rid of him. There is a new Sheriff in town, so get used to it. The VOC may have initially asked relevant questions but when they didn’t get the answers desired they printed the innuendos and suppositions which had been proven baseless. That in my book is not good journalism and smacks of doing a political hatchet job on an elected official most likely prompted by another political group. As far as your credibility goes, who really cares since as a liberal, your mind was made up before the article was even written. Sorry to pop your fantasy bubble, but I have fought all my battles and have none left except to counter the crap put out by liberals like Dan C. and people like yourself.

        • Jacki Livingston

          First of all, I have always known that Agran was not all peope thought. So quit assuming. I am socially liberal and fiscally conservative. You don’t know me. So right there, you fail. And, as to credibility? While you and your gal pal were breathing the rarified air of the Irvine elite, I was in the trenches at SSA. I was helping real people who have real problems, not make believe tempests in china teacups with a silver spoon. I was pleading for any law enforcement, politicians and other entities in the County to help me help the comatose and paralyzed patients in OC nursing homes who were being robbed, neglected and who died because of criminal bedmates of County leaders and unethical, dirty nursing home operators. I was fighting a fight all alone, which cost me my entire career andp it me at the mercy of Todd Spitzer and his unethical and rigged court. So, yeah, pal, I have paid my dues, and none of my fighting was while hiding behind a man whose only purpose is to try and namec all those who disagree with my views. See, sweets, I am a big girl who fights her own battles, even up against impossible odds. Perhaps you could find that uncool or not elite enough for you. But given the fact that no political or legal entities in the County had the stones to even try to take on this fight, I really don’t give a tiny rat’s behind what you or Shea think of me. Done here.

          • Ltpar

            Sorry Jacki, if I don’t shed a tear for your tale of woe on the cross. Sounds like a lot of sour grapes to me and frankly speaking, you were “done” before you started.