The Irvine City Council Tuesday night decided not to release the city attorney’s legal opinions regarding Councilwoman Christina Shea’s questionable consulting work for KIA Motors America and her contacts with city staff on behalf of the company.
That decision followed a raucous debate over whether waiving the attorney-client privilege that shields those opinions from disclosure would imperil that confidential pact in the future. If the council waives the privilege in one instance, it would be difficult to argue not waiving it in other cases, Shea’s attorney and others argued.
At the center of the controversy is a Voice of OC article published last December that revealed texts and emails Shea sent to staff in the planning department making special requests on behalf of KIA Motors. In several messages, Shea asks for things like permits and construction plans to be fast-tracked.
Bob Stern, a good government expert and co-author of the 1974 Political Reform Act, had admonished Shea and said the contacts were at the very least unethical. He also said Shea might have also violated the state law, which bars elected officials from influencing governmental decisions that could be valuable to their consulting clients.
Shea at Tuesday night’s meeting again defended her communications with city staff as proper. She emphasized that there were no permits or construction plans that needed approval – even though in her messages she assumes there are permits and plans needing approval — so there was nothing official for her to try and expedite.
Shea called the entire issue a coordinated political attack by Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway, who put the item on the council meeting agenda. And she claimed Lalloway was responsible for the media coverage.
“I have been in public office a long time, and I will weather this storm just like I have many others,” Shea said.
Lalloway called Shea’s contacts with staff an example of “dirty, ugly government.” For several days he and Shea battled over the issue in the comments sections of blogs and Voice of OC. Lalloway has been calling Shea “corrupt Christina,” a label that mimics Trump’s branding of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as “crooked Hillary.”
He also dismissed Shea’s accusations as her “making stuff up” and nothing more than a conspiracy theory.
Shea has countered Lalloway by saying that City Attorney Jeff Melching had cleared her communications as legal. There are local and state laws that might govern those contacts – including the Political Reform Act – and Shea claims Melching has opined her contacts don’t violate any of them.
Lalloway said it was those claims by Shea about the city attorney’s legal opinions that led him to request their release.
The city has a lobbying and ethics ordinance, and Shea’s messages to staff don’t appear to violate them because the local rules only make it illegal for Shea to lobby other government agencies. The laws were passed in 2006 by a council majority that was probably targeting Shea’s ability to work in government relations.
But there remains the question of the state law, which Shea claims she hasn’t violated because Melching told her as much. However, in comments made to Voice of OC late last year, Melching had emphasized that he only gave Shea an opinion on the local laws, which doesn’t include the Political Reform Act.
Shea says Melching gave her a written opinion on the local laws and advised her verbally regarding the state law. Lalloway motioned for the council to vote to release both the written and verbal opinions, but it died after he couldn’t get a second.
Meanwhile, several members of the public blamed Lalloway for stirring up the issue and coordinating with a “radical” left-wing blog like The Liberal OC. The blog’s publisher, Dan Chmielewski, had filed a complaint with the state Fair Political Practices Commission following the Voice of OC article.
The FPPC in a response to Chmielewski said it had already opened an investigation in reaction to media coverage of the issue.
Resident Steve Greenberg accused Lalloway of creating the controversy because he wanted the consulting gig with KIA Motors, alleging that Lalloway contacted KIA Motors and told them “there’s a new sheriff in town.”
Allan Bartlett, a finance commissioner appointed by Shea, also blamed the issue on Lalloway, saying he’s “never seen a more self centered, narcissistic, control freak;” and that Lalloway was trying to destroy Shea’s political career. Bartlett read an email into the record that Lalloway sent to Mayor Steven Choi that also threatened to destroy Choi’s political career.
One public speaker, resident and potential council candidate Courtney Santos, said she backs Lalloway on the release of the legal opinions and defended the media’s questioning of Shea’s contacts as the kind of watchdog reporting essential to a functioning democracy.
“Shea’s decisions if not corrupt, were unwise,” Santos said.
In the end, council members decided to take no action and adjourn the meeting. Councilwoman Beth Krom said the discussion was an embarrassment to the city. She also alluded to the fact that while Shea is accusing Lalloway and the media of attacking her, Shea and the media had in the past accused Krom and the former council majority of corruption surrounding the Great Park project.
“Honestly, I feel like I need to go home and take a shower,” Krom said.
Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek