Santa Ana Councilman Roman Reyna, facing an election fraud trial from a police union-backed candidate’s civil lawsuit against him, agreed to resign from the council March 1, setting off a possible shift in the balance of power at City Hall.
In the trial, which was scheduled to start Wednesday, Reyna was facing the likelihood of sworn testimony, in public, by other city officials and one of his family members regarding allegations he falsified residency documents in order to wrongfully show he was eligible to run for the Ward 4 seat he won in November.
Reyna himself may have been called to the witness stand and face a decision whether to testify, or assert his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself by providing testimony that could be used to prosecute him criminally. At least one Orange County candidate previously was disqualified from office and faced criminal charges for falsifying residency on election paperwork.
Rather than face the trial, Reyna agreed to resign, effective noon on March 1, in a settlement deal with Phil Bacerra, who was the only other Ward 4 candidate in November and filed the lawsuit. The resignation agreement was made public Wednesday morning in court as part of the settlement, which was approved by Superior Court Judge Craig L. Griffin.
At a time the City Council’s power structure hangs in the balance, Reyna’s resignation sets the stage for a potential shift in power. Reyna’s seat could change hands from someone who – with the help of over $300,000 in undisclosed dark money – ran against a police union-backed candidate, to someone who has the union’s support.
After Reyna resigns, the City Council has 30 days to either appoint someone to the seat, or set a special election for several months later, with voters across the city deciding who fills the seat. If a majority of council members choose to appoint someone, the city charter requires that the appointee must have lived in the ward for at least one year.
Reyna’s resignation has implications for two of the largest and most controversial issues currently facing the city: whether to approve the six-story 2525 N. Main St. housing development and whether to fund the first year of a $25 million pay raise for police officers.
Reyna was seen as a supporter of the 2525 project and its developer, Ryan Ogulnick, who has faced apparent opposition to the project from several council members as well as hundreds of nearby residents. And Reyna’s replacement could provide the crucial fifth vote to fund the first year of the police raises, which the council narrowly fell short of funding Tuesday night.
The police union has been Santa Ana’s largest campaign spender in the last two elections. It often is referred to as “POA,” shorthand for Santa Ana Police Officers Association. A police union representative was present in the courtroom Wednesday and observed the proceedings.
Reyna didn’t return a voicemail and text message seeking comment on his resignation. He was not in court Wednesday, nor two weeks earlier when the trial originally was scheduled, and is not known to have spoken publicly about the case.
“I am happy to see justice prevail,” Bacerra told Voice of OC after the settlement was approved.
“We had a candidate who we’ve known all along was not eligible to run, let alone serve,” he added. The settlement “removes from the [City Council] dais someone who wasn’t truthful with the residents of the city of Santa Ana.” Asked if he’s still interested in serving on the council, Bacerra said he would be happy to if the opportunity arose.
The lawsuit alleges a scheme by Reyna to lie on his election paperwork to make it look like he was eligible for the Ward 4 race despite allegedly living outside the ward.
During the period Reyna was required to live in Ward 4 to be eligible for the race, he was registered to vote at an address in Ward 6 and filed a Planning Commission application to the city where he listed the Ward 6 address as his residence, according to the suit.
When the city clerk texted Reyna to tell him the address was in Ward 6, Reyna replied “What,” “Can u send me Ward 4 boundary,” and “Yikes,” according to screenshots released by the city and attached to the lawsuit. He later submitted paperwork alleging he had been living at a Ward 4 address during that period, according to the suit.
David De Leon, a Santa Ana resident and Santa Ana Unified School District PTA president who ran for the Ward 3 seat in 2016, said he was thankful for the case’s outcome because it exposed wrongdoing. “This is great for the city,” said De Leon, who attended the court proceeding Wednesday in Fullerton.
People close to City Hall said a relative of Reyna’s complained to then-City Clerk Maria Huizar that she had signed false paperwork Reyna submitted that showed he had been living at a Ward 4 address. Huizar was subpoenaed as a witness in the trial and likely would have testified if the trial proceeded.
By avoiding the trial, the witness testimony about Reyna’s alleged election fraud might not see the light of day.
Theoretically, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, now led by Todd Spitzer, could pursue a criminal investigation into Reyna. Bacerra’s attorney, OC election lawyer Mark Rosen, filed a criminal complaint with the DA’s office in August alleging election fraud over the same alleged facts and evidence.
The DA’s office at the time was run by Tony Rackauckas, who was accused of going light on political corruption. But Spitzer, who was elected in November, declared during the campaign he would “crack down” on residency fraud by candidates.
“Our elections must be protected. As so many cities in Orange County begin having district based voting it is critical that their candidates and representatives are in fact from the district,” Spitzer wrote in an August news release, the same month Reyna submitted his candidacy paperwork.
“We have seen up and down the state far too many abuses of local elected officials faking their residency in order to run for office. This is wrong and will end on my watch as DA.”
In a statement Wednesday, the DA’s office said it was “reviewing the allegations” against Reyna.
In the 1982 primary election, Orange County Municipal Judge Joanne Harrold won against her two opponents, but in response to a civil case was removed from office after another judge ruled she falsified her residency on her candidacy paperwork.
Harrold later faced criminal charges for allegedly making the false statements and backdating a house deed showing she lived in Newport Beach. About a decade later, in March 1992, she was convicted of at least one of the charges, though details weren’t immediately available this week.
As part of avoiding the trial, Reyna agreed he will stay out of the Ward 4 seat until at least 2022.
“Reyna shall not seek appointment to the vacancy created by his termination nor accept any appointment to the vacancy, and he shall not run in any special election called to fill the vacancy,” the settlement states.
“He shall not serve as a councilman during the current term of Ward 4,” it adds. Violations would be enforced by the court.
Reyna reportedly has had trouble since December, when the lawsuit was filed, with paying his legal fees to defend himself from the lawsuit. He asked the City Council to approve having the city pay his fees, but they have not done so, according to people close to the council.
Reyna’s lawyer, Glenn Ward Calsada, told the judge Wednesday part of the reason Reyna wanted to wait until March 1 to resign was so he could seek money covering the expenses defending himself in the case.
“He may be making a request…for reimbursement for legal fees and costs” from the lawsuit, said Calsada, who is based in Woodland Hills and specializes in bankruptcy law.
People close to the city have estimated Reyna’s legal fees to be on the order of $20,000 or more, though the actual amount has not been revealed.
In his most recent personal income disclosure with the city, from August 2018, Reyna lists his only source of income as being a “Community Rep.” for Suavecito Pomade, a Santa Ana-based hair products company. He received anywhere between $10,000 and $100,000 from the job, according to his disclosure.
It appears to be an uphill battle for Reyna to get the city to pay his legal fees, since the lawsuit stems from his actions as a candidate rather than as a Council member.
The city usually is required to cover legal fees for officials only when the lawsuit is about their official scope of work or position, but not when it pertains to their actions as a candidate before they took office.
As part of the settlement, Reyna and Bacerra agreed they would each pay their own attorney fees.
People close to the city have wondered if the police union was behind the lawsuit. But Bacerra said they didn’t help.
“I did not receive any assistance from the POA,” Bacerra told Voice of OC after the settlement Wednesday, referring to the police union.
Rosen’s legal fees were not being paid by the union, he added. “No, that is not the case,” Bacerra said.
People close to City Hall have suggested Reyna’s legal fees could be covered by Ogulnick, the politically-active developer behind the major 2525 N. Main project.
Reyna didn’t answer when asked by voicemail and text message whether that’s true. But Ogulnick said he’s not involved at all with funding Reyna’s legal defense.
“Not a nickel and I will not fund any defense,” Ogulnick said via text message.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.