Two Irvine city commissioners did not vote improperly on a development at the Irvine Business Complex despite a lobbyist’s email indicating they might have pre-committed to their votes, a review by an outside law firm has concluded.

The officials targeted by the inquiry – Community Services Commissioner Melissa Fox and Planning Commissioner Mary Ann Gaido — were also unsuccessful candidates for council and mayor, respectively, and ran on a slate against the council’s incumbent Republican candidates.

That is what led opponents of the probe to characterize it as a politically motivated attack by the Republican council majority.

The council ordered the review by Los Angeles-based law firm Richards, Watson & Gershon at a special meeting it October. The letter clearing Fox and Gaido arrived on Nov. 21, just over two weeks after the Nov. 4 election.

“No surprise that we were cleared,” Fox said when reached by phone. “It was clearly a political maneuver by someone who was trying to hold on to their seats, and they needed everything they could because the voters weren’t happy with them.”

Said Gaido: “I think it made it very obvious that there was no there there, and instead we’re left with the continued technique by this City Council to raise the question of wrongdoing and use the taxpayer’s money for political purposes.”

The council majority made the decision to investigate the votes after lobbyist Pam Sapetto advised developers in an email that, although Gaido, Fox and incumbent Councilman Larry Agran promised in their campaigns to impose a moratorium on new development — billing themselves the “slow growth team,” — privately the candidates assured Sapetto they would continue supporting projects at the Irvine Business Complex.

The email was first reported on by the OC Weekly

The key question is whether the email constituted a pre-commitment by Gaido and Fox to voting for the 280-unit development known as Fusion 360. With some decisions, commissioners are required under state law to follow strict due process guidelines and maintain an impartial stance until they cast their votes.

But according to the law firm’s letter, penned by attorney Craig A. Steele, Sapetto’s email contained the “hyperbole of a lobbyist in a fundraising appeal” without any “true basis.” And even if it were true, the email indicates a general policy position taken by Gaido and Fox regarding development at the Irvine Business Complex and cannot be “fairly” construed as pre-committing votes on a specific project, Steele writes.

Steele also addressed other questions, all raised by Republican Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway in an appeal to overturn the Planning Commission’s vote in favor of the development. They included whether Sapetto, the developer and others “bundled” $99 contributions – the threshold for public disclosure – thereby creating a conflict of interest, and whether Sapetto instructed the bundling so as to avoid disclosure.

There’s nothing illegal about bundling contributions and there was no evidence of money laundering, Steel’s letter stated. He also noted that another email sent by Sapetto also instructed donors to write checks under $99, this time to “pro-development” candidates.

At last week’s council meeting, council members — including Lalloway himself — said they were satisfied with the law firm’s report and would deny Lalloway’s appeal.

“My concerns were solely related to the process of the planning commission, and Mr. Stelee’s letter takes care of those concerns,” Lalloway said.

Republican Councilwoman Christina Shea said it was the council’s responsibility to look into allegations of impropriety.

“That’s our job. We need to investigate it. We need to look into this stuff. We have to make sure that we’re running our city in a way that’s, you know, appropriate and above board,” Shea said.

However, Democratic Counciwoman Beth Krom said she found it “troubling” that the law firm’s review was part of a political campaign against Democratic candidates and called the ordeal a “wild goose hunt.”

Fox, who trailed Lalloway by only 210 votes, placed at least part of the blame for her loss on what she described as a manufactured controversy.

“No surprise on that end. It was a political ruse, and effective,” Fox said.

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