State Political Watchdog Investigating Irvine Councilwoman

The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating Irvine Councilwoman Christina Shea for potential law violations related to her contacts with city staff on behalf of a consulting client, a letter from the state watchdog confirmed.

The probe follows a Voice of OC article published last month detailing Shea’s emails and text messages to staff in the planning department about requests to approve things like renovation plans, construction permits and corporate sign alterations submitted by Irvine-based KIA Motors, a longtime client of Shea’s consulting business.

On multiple occasions Shea told city staffers that she wanted them to assist KIA with its requests. She asked that they “insure [KIA’s renovation plans] get thru as soon as possible” and to make sure the Korean carmaker is shepherded through the permitting process “as efficiently as possible,” emails and text messages obtained by Voice of OC show.

At the time, Shea defended the communications as a service she would offer to any constituent, regardless of whether they’re clients of her government relations business. She also denied that the contacts constituted “lobbying,” and said a city attorney had given her opinion that the conduct would be legal under the city’s lobbying and ethics ordinances.

However, the attorney, Jeff Melching, had told Voice of OC that he did not opine on whether she violated the state’s Political Reform Act, which governs conflicts of interest.

Dan Chmielewski, editor of The Liberal OC blog, filed a complaint against Shea with the FPPC, which investigates possible violations of state law, after the article ran. The FPPC responded that the issue was already under investigation.

The FPPC sent a letter to Shea on Jan. 12 notifying her that it was considering an investigation into the “use of your official position to influence city staff on behalf of KIA Motors, a source of income to you, in violation of” the law. The letter asked Shea for a response within 10 days.

In a brief interview, Shea denied that the agency had begun an official investigation. She said she hired an attorney who put together a response and that it was sent to the FPPC on Tuesday.

Following Shea’s denial, FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga confirmed again that the investigation was underway. “She can think what she wants. The letter says what the letter says,” he said.

Shea also said her attorney reviewed all of her contacts with city staff and found that there were no violations of the state law because there were no “governmental decisions” she tried to influence on behalf of KIA.

Shea declined to share her attorney’s analysis with Voice of OC.

If Shea is found to have broken the law, the FPPC could fine her up to $5,000 per violation.

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