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A criminal investigation is underway into election residency fraud claims against Roman Reyna, who served as a Santa Ana councilman for two and a half months until he resigned in early March.
Orange County District Attorney investigators, as part of the probe, served search warrants at multiple locations in recent weeks to obtain documents, including text messages involving Reyna from multiple cell phones.
In the planned trial, Reyna faced 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. But his settlement of the civil case doesn’t prevent the DA’s office from conducting a criminal investigation.
“The case is still an ongoing criminal investigation,” said Melanie Eustice, chief of administration and public affairs at the DA’s office.
Reyna and his attorney in the civil case, Glenn Ward Calsada, didn’t return phone messages seeking comment about the criminal investigation.
At a time when the City Council’s power structure hangs in the balance, Reyna’s resignation set the stage for a potential shift in power. Reyna’s seat could change hands from someone who – with the help of $320,000 in undisclosed dark money – ran against a police union-backed candidate, to someone who has the union’s support.
The vacancy in Reyna’s seat also has implications for two of the largest and most controversial issues facing the city: whether to approve the 2525 N. Main St. housing development and whether to fund the first year of a $25 million pay raise for police officers.
Santa Ana council members are scheduled Tuesday night to either appoint someone to Reyna’s seat or hold a special election for it in November.
The civil lawsuit alleged 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 a purported rental agreement alleging he had been living at a Ward 4 address during that period.
Reyna has not responded to multiple requests for comment about the allegations over the last two months.
At least one person who won an OC election later faced criminal charges for allegedly falsifying their residency on election paperwork.
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.
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 Reyna criminal investigation is the first publicly-known Orange County DA probe into corruption allegations since Todd Spitzer took over the DA’s office from Tony Rackauckas in January.
Spitzer focused part of his 2018 campaign on alleging the then-DA went easy on politicians, saying Rackauckas “looks the other way on corruption.”
And in 2013, Spitzer said for the years Rackauckas had been DA as of that point, the county had a “tone of tolerance” when it came to political ethics issues.
DA Received Reyna Complaint in Late Summer
Public statements from the DA’s office suggest its Reyna investigation started in February, about a month after Spitzer was sworn in as DA.
Months earlier, when Rackauckas was in charge, the DA’s office received a complaint about Reyna’s alleged residency fraud that laid out similar alleged facts and evidence.
The Aug. 29 complaint alleged residency fraud, quoted the text messages with the city clerk, and pointed to the allegedly backdated lease agreement. It was submitted by attorney Mark Rosen, who later led the civil lawsuit against Reyna on behalf of Baccera.
As of mid-October – more than a month after the fraud complaint – DA officials were reviewing the letter, then-spokeswoman Michelle Van Der Linden said at the time.
That remained the case on Feb. 6 just after Reyna avoided the trial by agreeing to resign, according to a DA spokesperson. By Feb. 20, it was an active criminal investigation and has remained so since then, according to the DA’s office.
Reyna Benefitted from Dark Money That’s Also Under Investigation
In his campaign for council, Reyna was part of a slate of candidates who ran against candidates backed by the city’s influential police union.
As part of that slate, Reyna was the beneficiary of $320,000 in campaign money from a secret source – known as dark money – that went to ads supporting himself and two other council candidates, and attacking Bacerra.
The $320,000 was routed through a business created one month before the election, and campaign disclosures didn’t disclose the original source of the money.
State investigators with the Fair Political Practices Commission have been examining whether the dark money violated state law, and have conducted at least one interview in Orange County as part of that probe.
The campaign committee that handled the dark money was managed by a Northern California resident with family connections to the Santa Ana lobbyist for the 2525 N. Main St. project.
The project’s developer, Ryan Ogulnick, has denied any involvement with the dark money group.
Ogulnick’s lobbyist, Pam Sapetto, told Voice of OC after the November election she was not at that point involved with the dark money groups. She did not respond to follow-up questions about whether she previously was involved.
The campaign committee that handled the dark money was run by Sapetto’s son’s longtime partner, who is based in the Northern California city of Morgan Hill, according to the campaign disclosures.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.