Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido at a City Council meeting. Credit: Nick Gerda / Voice of OC

The vast majority of a $25,000 contribution to Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido’s legal defense fund was illegal and must be refunded, says local campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle.

Because Pulido, a city office holder, controls the fund the contribution limit is $1,000, Grindle says. This means that Pulido has to return $24,000 to a firm controlled by billionaire Broadcom founder and Anaheim Ducks owner Henry Samueli.

Pulido started the fund to defray legal costs surrounding investigations into a property swap whereby the mayor and his family received a house from a city vendor for less than half fair market value, according to public records.

In 2010, Pulido and his family swapped a parking lot they owned behind NAPA Orange County Auto Parts in downtown Santa Ana for a house in Westminster. The car parts store owner, Rupen James Akoubian, also owned the house.

Pulido sold the house at a $197,000 profit, according to public records. Meanwhile, Akoubian received an exclusive, $1.35 million no-bid contract with the city to supply its vehicle fleet with parts. Pulido voted for the contract along with his council colleagues, and he voted for a smaller contract with the vendor before that.

The deal, which government ethics experts have said could be a violation of conflict of interest law and possibly even a bribe, is being investigated by the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

Grindle, who at one time was Pulido’s campaign treasurer, was made aware of the legal defense fund and the contribution from Samueli by an article published Tuesday in Voice of OC.

In a comment to the article, Grindle said the city charter places a $1,000 limit on contributions to any committee controlled by a city candidate. Pulido signed the statement of organization for the legal defense fund as the candidate or officeholder “controlling” the committee.

City Attorney Sonia Carvalho and City Clerk Maria Huizar did not respond to an email seeking comment on Grindle’s conclusion.

And when Voice of OC reached Pulido by phone, he declined to comment.

But immediately after hanging up, Pulido called Grindle, and the two talked at length about the issue, Grindle said.

Grindle said Pulido told her his attorney, Charles McClung, checked with the FPPC on the rules governing legal defense funds and that the donation was legal. But, Grindle said, the city charter trumps the FPPC when it comes to city officials.

“The first thing out of Miguel’s mouth was how do I correct this,” Grindle said.

Pulido asked Grindle whether he could raise the money in separate $1,000 contributions to pay $24,000 back to Samueli, and Grindle said he could. Pulido replied it would be “a lot of work,” but that he could do it.

Grindle is a longtime friend of Pulido’s and said she considers him one of the most “honest and kind” people she knows and someone who wouldn’t intentionally violate the law.

She told Pulido those qualities also make him naïve to people looking to use him for his influence, she said. She then referred specifically to the property swap deal.

“He agreed with that… He’s such a kind person, that I don’t think he knows how vicious people can be,” Grindle said, adding that she told Pulido he should retire. “I think it’s time for Miguel to move on with his life, before he ends up in jail.”

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