Orange County District Attorney investigators, responding to evidence of residency fraud, placed a Santa Ana councilman under surveillance in January and February, and later told a judge the video footage supported their belief the councilman probably committed felonies by falsely claiming to live within his council district.
It’s the first time in years Orange County DA officials have been known to place a politician under surveillance for alleged residency fraud.
The surveillance, which was later cited by DA officials in their request for search warrants, included installing 24-hour cameras to monitor homes linked to then-Councilman Roman Reyna for at least 19 days. Investigators also conducted morning drive-bys to observe where his car was parked.
“There is probable cause to believe [Reyna] committed Perjury and provided False Evidence of Candidacy when he filed nomination papers for the Ward 4 seat of the Santa Ana City Council in the 2018 election,” states the DA’s office sworn declaration for a search warrant.
The DA’s declaration cites probable cause Reyna committed additional perjury when he listed his address on two voter registration forms last year. Perjury and false evidence of candidacy are felonies under California law.
As of Monday, no criminal charges are known to have been filed against Reyna, who has not disputed the residency fraud allegations and did not return a phone message seeking comment for this article. Earlier this year, Reyna chose to resign from the council in order to avoid a civil trial about the residency fraud allegations.
The leader of the DA’s investigations bureau, Paul Walters, was fired by Reyna in 2013 when Walters was Santa Ana’s city manager. In response to questions from Voice of OC, District Attorney Todd Spitzer on Monday said Walters had recused himself from the Reyna investigation.
DA officials, after a judge approved the warrants, searched three Santa Ana homes on Feb. 20 and 21 for evidence about whether Reyna was lying about where he lived, and served a warrant ordering Santa Ana officials to seize all cell phones and laptops used by former City Clerk Maria Huizar, who had texted with Reyna about his residency.
Reyna served on the City Council from late 2012 until late 2016, and was elected this November to another four-year term. But he stopped attending City Council meetings in February and stepped down on March 1 as part of a settlement deal to avoid a civil trial by his 2018 election opponent, Phil Bacerra, who was backed by the Santa Ana police officers’ union in last year’s election and sought to have Reyna removed for the alleged residency fraud.
A 2015 investigation, under prior District Attorney Tony Rackaukas, into Supervisor Andrew Do’s residency involved interviewing neighbors and reviewing documents but did not involve placing Do under surveillance to see where he was staying at night, according to the DA’s description of its investigation. At the end of that inquiry in fall 2015, DA officials said the evidence did not show Do lied about his residency.
In Reyna’s case, the investigation was based on evidence the DA’s office received in August from attorney Mark Rosen, though it wasn’t until four months later in January – the same month Spitzer took office as DA – that the lead investigator was assigned to it and surveillance was conducted, according to the search warrant application.
By the third week of January, the investigator had gathered documents from multiple agencies, conducted drive-by observations of a home Reyna was allegedly actually living at, and installed surveillance cameras outside two homes to monitor whether Reyna was staying there and when he arrived and left.
Rackauckas, who was district attorney from 1999 until Spitzer was sworn in Jan. 7, didn’t return a voicemail asking if his office investigated the Reyna residency allegations during the four months between receiving Rosen’s evidence and Spitzer taking office.
Walters, the DA investigations bureau chief, had served as Santa Ana’s longtime police chief, and briefly as city manager until Reyna joined other council members in firing him in January 2013. The ouster was part of an effort to seize power at City Hall from longtime Mayor Miguel Pulido, who supported Walters.
Walters is not involved in the Reyna investigation, Spitzer said Monday in a statement he provided by phone.
“Chief Walters has recused himself. He has recused himself from the case,” Spitzer said.
The surveillance of Reyna came within days of Spitzer taking office in January, after a campaign in which Spitzer alleged Rackauckas turned a blind eye to political corruption.
Spitzer, in a 2013 interview, said of Rackauckas, “You have a district attorney who does not look at public corruption, and basically disregards the allegations.”
“There’s been, for years – for the last decade, just this general sense that you can do whatever you want in this county and get away with it. If it’s not on video tape, and it’s not in a report, you can get away with it,” Spitzer added.
Reyna Benefitted from Dark Money That’s Under State 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 donor or donors – 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 shell company created one month before the election, and campaign disclosures didn’t disclose the original source of the money.
State law requires election committees to disclose “the true source” of their money in addition to any “intermediary,” according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), the state agency in charge of enforcing campaign finance laws at the local and state level.
“Failure to disclose the true source of a contribution is considered one of the most serious violations of the Political Reform Act,” the FPPC says in its campaign finance manual.
Investigators with the FPPC 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.
In 2013, the state Attorney General’s Office issued subpoenas and convened a grand jury to investigate $11 million in dark money funneled into the 2012 statewide election. The probe ultimately led to a $1 million fine.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].