The Santa Ana City Council decided this week to release an investigative report into Mayor Miguel Pulido’s property swap with a city contractor following a Voice of OC letter threatening litigation, culminating a months-long effort by the news agency to make the document public.
In July, Voice of OC requested the report under the California Public Records Act. City Attorney Sonia Carvalho denied that request, citing ongoing investigations by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and Fair Political Practices Commission.
But in early September, council members, frustrated over the seemingly slow pace of the investigations, voted 6-0 to release the report if the DA and FPPC didn’t file charges by Sept. 30.
At the time, Councilman Sal Tinajero said he didn’t want to appear as if he was covering for Pulido’s potential conflict of interest crimes alleged in the report.
However, council members reversed that decision after Senior Assistant District Attorney Michael Lubinski sent a letter saying the release of the report could compromise a complex investigation by multiple law enforcement agencies.
In response to that decision, Voice of OC Editor-in-Chief Norberto Santana Jr. penned a letter that criticized the council’s reversal and demanded the report be immediately released.
The report details a legal analysis showing that Pulido could very well face felony conflict of interest charges stemming from his property swap with NAPA Orange County Auto Parts and his subsequent votes to award city contracts to the business.
It is based on an investigation by former Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask, which found Pulido tried to cover up his real estate transactions with the store’s owner Rupen James Akoubian, which ultimately netted the mayor a $197,000 profit.
The council deliberated behind closed doors whether to release the report in light of Voice of OC’s demand at its Oct. 7 meeting. Carvalho had reached out to the DA’s office to give the law enforcement agency an opportunity to have the report sealed via a court order, but the DA’s office never responded, she said.
The council’s ultimate decision during that closed session was to release the report.
But the city attorney never had the chance to report out that vote because Pulido had cancelled the public session after a confrontation with a man attending the meeting wearing a hat that said “Fuck The Police.”
Activists had criticized Pulido’s move as a political distraction to stall the announcement regarding the report and deflect attention from its allegations.
Voice of OC obtained the report on Oct. 13th, which Tinajero criticized in a news release as a leak.
But at this week’s council meeting, Carvalho put that notion to rest by announcing that the council had voted on Oct. 7 to release the report and reaffirmed that decision this week with another closed-session vote.
The lone no vote came from Tinajero, who said he cast his vote because of the DA’s contention that the release would compromise the investigation.
“We are deeply appreciative of the action by council members and their dedication to both the letter and spirit of the state’s open records law,” Santana said.
On Friday, Tinajero backtracked from his earlier claims of a leak, saying he hadn’t realized that the council had decided to change course again and release the report because he had “said his piece” during the closed-door session and left the room.
“I was not in the room when they made that decision,” Tinajero said.
Tinajero now agrees that the report is a public document and that the alleged leak did not occur.
Beyond Voice of OC’s demand, another contributing factor to the council’s decision to release the report is the apparent lack of investigation by the DA’s office.
Trask wrote that the top question DA investigators should be asking is whether Pulido had any influence over city staff’s recommendation of a no-bid, $1.35 million contract that made Akuobian’s store the city’s exclusive auto parts provider.
However, over six months after the DA’s office launched its investigation, DA investigators still hadn’t interviewed key city staffers involved in the decision to recommend the contract.
DA chief spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder refused to address the issue, citing past disagreements with Voice of OC.
Meanwhile, retired FBI agent Jim Wedick was dumbfounded at the DA’s lack of action.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Wedick, whose storied career included work on the Abscam public corruption sting popularized in the movie American Hustle. “The worst thing that can happen in a case is you wait until memories fade… there’s no more important job that you can do than to get that story down on paper.”
Wedick added, “why have [the investigation] if you’re not going to do it right?”