As multiple investigations into alleged misdeeds by Santa Ana City Council members are ongoing, one council member claims that the city attorney’s office has cleared her of any wrongdoing.
Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who was accused of accepting a gift and campaign contributions illegally, said that City Attorney Sonia Carvalho has told her “everything was all good” and that Carvalho would confirm as much.
However, when a Voice of OC reporter tried to verify Martinez’s claim with Carvalho after Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, the city attorney issued a terse “no comment” and walked away.
Carvalho initiated the review late last year after Barry Levine, on behalf of a former New York-based investor with the Santa Ana developer behind a 271-unit apartment complex known as “The Met at South Coast,” publicly alleged corruption at City Hall and submitted a bundle of records that he said prove it.
Once partners in The Met, Levine and Ryan Ogulnick of Vineyards Development Corp. are now in a bitter court dispute involving investment in the project.
Levine’s primary allegation on behalf of the investor, ILUS GP US, is that Vineyards Development Corp., developer of the complex, wrote a $10,000 check to a now defunct Hollywood nightclub called Geisha House that was spent on a party for Martinez.
If that allegation were proven, Martinez would be in violation of state law governing gifts received by public officials.
To back up his allegation against Martinez, Levine submitted records to the Santa Ana city clerk that included a check from Vineyards Development Corp. with a notation that the money is for a gift certificate. He also included an expense report from the developer that shows a line item payment for the same amount to “Michele Martinez- TO GEISHA”
However, the page of the expense report that notes the check is not among the documents attached to the file in Los Angeles Superior Court that was reviewed by Voice of OC.
There could also have been another explanation for the check.
Martinez’s campaign finance records also show that her 2012 Assembly campaign received three contributions totaling $10,500 from Geisha House-related entities on April 10 of last year, just one day after the date of the $10,000 check to the nightclub. The entities are Dolce Group Concepts LLC, Dolce Group DC LLC and Geisha House LLC, which records show are affiliated with Lonnie Moore and Mike Malin, the owners of Geisha House.
A week after receiving contributions from those businesses, Martinez voted April 16 to approve Ogulnick’s apartment complex project in south Santa Ana.
Martinez also voted in favor of the project on March 19, 2012, and she cast two separate votes in favor of another Ogulnick housing project at recent council meetings.
However, even if it were proven that Vineyards Development wrote a check to the business entities intending to route that money to Martinez, there would only be evidence of a crime on Martinez’s part if it were clear that she knew she was accepting laundered cash.
“I don’t know how [the contributions from entities connected to Geisha House] is a relationship with the $10,000 gift certificate,” Martinez said when interviewed about the matter in December. “I’m not worried. I pay my treasurer a lot of money to protect me.”
The status of another Carvalho investigation into whether former Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez broke the city’s campaign finance law remains unknown. Martinez said she didn’t ask about it, and Carvalho refused to comment.
Alvarez had voted for The Met after Vineyards Development paid $5,000 for a legal opinion concluding that Alvarez could run for an unprecedented fourth term, according to the expense report Levine had submitted to the city.
Meanwhile, Carvalho’s investigation into a property swap between Mayor Miguel Pulido and a city vendor, which netted the mayor a nearly $200,000 profit, continues into its third month.
On Dec. 2, Carvalho said publicly that she would expect to have a report ready for the council in two weeks. But seven weeks later, she still has yet to complete that report, saying the investigation has been more record-intensive than expected.