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Former Santa Ana Councilman Roman Reyna pleaded guilty Thursday to felony election fraud and agreed to pay $578,000 in restitution, according to prosecutors and his attorney.
Reyna, who resigned at the beginning of March to settle a civil lawsuit over the same allegations, pleaded guilty to a felony count of perjury and a misdemeanor for filing false candidacy paperwork, according to court records.
As part of the plea deal, Reyna admitted to knowingly lying about his home address on official documents when running for City Council last year. District Attorney officials had accused Reyna of lying to show he was living in the city’s Ward 4, and thus eligible to run for that City Council seat, when he in fact was living outside that district.
Reyna agreed to pay $578,053 in restitution to the city for the cost of an upcoming special election to fill his seat on the council, and will have a lifetime ban against holding elected office, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
“I think this is going to be a culture shock for the county,” District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a phone interview Thursday. “I mean, this county suffered for 20 years where elected officials were not held accountable for their misconduct.”
“[Reyna] made a huge mistake and he had to suffer the consequences,” Spitzer added.
Reyna faced a maximum of four years and 6 months in custody under the charges he pleaded to, according to court documents he signed as part of the deal. He faces no jail time under the plea agreement, as long as he doesn’t break other laws while on probation.
If Reyna completes his probation terms over the next year, the felony guilty plea will be withdrawn and he’ll be sentenced for the misdemeanor, according to prosecutors.
Reyna’s attorney said the former councilman acknowledges his mistakes and wants to move forward.
“The point of the plea was to allow Mr. Reyna to get on with his life. He’s been a servant to Santa Ana, both in a private nonprofit capacity and as a city councilman. And he plans on continuing to serve his community,” said the attorney, Steve Baric.
“I think that part of the situation, and part of the reason we are where we are today, is because district elections started in Santa Ana, and I think that there was some confusion. But I do believe that Mr. Reyna admits that he made several mistakes along the way and he’s willing to take responsibility.”
It’s unclear how much of the restitution Reyna will end up paying.
“I think everybody knows the probability of him paying that amount of restitution is probably very unlikely,” Spitzer said, adding that probation officials will determine what his ability is to pay.
“What’s required for him to be successful on probation is that he makes a good-faith effort to pay it,” Spitzer said. “We don’t have debtors’ prisons. We don’t put people in prison because they’re poor, right?”
Reyna didn’t return messages for comment, including asking how he will come up with the $578,000 in restitution.
“I think that’s going to be difficult for him, but he’s willing to take responsibility for his actions,” Baric said of the restitution payment.
Reyna’s most recent financial disclosure to the city, which was in March, showed his income totaled between $10,000 and $100,000 over the previous year from working as a representative for a hair products company.
“[Reyna] caused the city of Santa Ana to have to spend over a half a million dollars on a special election,” Spitzer said. “That’s horrible. And he has to be held accountable for that. They could have used that money for all [sorts] of other things, obviously.”
The county’s top prosecutor added he wanted to send a message to elected officials with Reyna’s plea deal.
“He’s got a year of jail hanging over his head if he violates any laws, and so that’s pretty strict. It was a combination of holding him accountable, but there was a secondary and very very important part of this plea for me, which was sending a message to elected officials in this county, that I expect them to follow the law and I will hold them accountable if they don’t,” Spitzer said.
“The days of getting by with malfeasance in politics is over in Orange County.”
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 civil lawsuit that led Reyna to step down.
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.
DA investigators served search warrants on multiple homes and put Reyna under surveillance in January to gather evidence for their investigation.
Reyna did responded to multiple requests for comment during and after the lawsuit, which sought to disqualify Reyna over the residency fraud allegations. In February, Reyna avoided a trial in the case by agreeing to resign March 1, which he followed through on.
The suit was filed by Phil Bacerra, who was Reyna’s sole opponent in last year’s Ward 4 election, and his attorney, Mark Rosen.
At least one other 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.
The special election for Reyna’s former seat is scheduled for Nov. 5, and has six candidates.
Reyna’s council run last year was supported by $320,000 in money from undisclosed sources – known as dark money. State authorities with the Fair Political Practices Commission have an ongoing investigation into whether that violated campaign finance laws.
Reyna’s attorney declined to say if his client cooperated with the DA’s office on any other investigations.
“That’s not something that I would disclose. But that’s not the basis of the plea,” Baric said.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.