This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.
Fullerton City Councilman Ahmad Zahra currently faces two misdemeanor charges of vandalism and battery, after an incident last year where county prosecutors say he damaged someone’s cell phone.
Yet there are few details around the case: No booking photo, few facts around the incident beyond a brief charging document, no access to body-worn camera footage as it’s under a protective order, and few public statements around the incident from the man charged himself.
One Fullerton watchdog takes issue with a lack of acknowledgment by City Hall around the case, involving an elected official who’s partly in charge of taxpayer dollars:
“In a city where the truth does not come out easily, it’s interesting,” said Joshua Ferguson, who’s active on a number of efforts to pry records and information from City Hall for the public and also posts to the local watchdog blog Friends for Fullerton’s Future.
Zahra, responding to Voice of OC requests for comment, offered this written statement:
“I deny the allegations against me and I expect the charges will soon be dismissed. I look forward to being able to tell my side of the story once the case is over.”
Prosecutors in a brief charging document say Zahra used “force and violence” on a person named Monica F. and damaged the person’s cell phone.
Voice of OC reached out to the District Attorney’s office for more facts around the incident.
In response, District Attorney spokesperson Kimberly Edds said the charges “revolve around a dispute between the council member and a friend or acquaintance of his soon-to-be ex and it involved the destruction and damage to that person’s cell phone. It had to do with the destruction of somebody else’s property.”
Edds also said it was common for protective orders over body-worn cameras to be issued in cases like this.
Ferguson was the first person to find out about Zahra’s case, saying he only found out about it while in search of other records.
“It’s interesting the city never acknowledged the case of Ahmad Zahra — I was actually looking something else up and pulled his name and that’s when we saw the charges against him,” Ferguson said.
The lack of acknowledgment, he said, is notable in a city that this month was still dealing with the fallout of one of its biggest cover-up scandals:
The day before Ferguson spoke with Voice of OC, a former Fullerton police officer was sentenced for lying on a police report and purposefully blowing a DUI investigation into former City Manager Joe Felz, who hit a tree with his car and attempted to flee after drinking on election night in 2016.
Fullerton police maintain there’s an explanation for some of the information gaps in Zahra’s case:
The Covid-19 pandemic has adjusted the department’s protocol for arrests, said department spokesperson Cpl. Billy Phu in an interview.
For some misdemeanor incidents, such as the misdemeanors Zahra has been charged with, the department is citing people on the field to appear in court at a later time and releasing them, Phu said.
“There are some exceptions, like for instance, a DUI or domestic violence incident — we don’t cite and release — those are arrests,” Phu said, adding that because Zahra wasn’t arrested, there is no booking photo.
He said he couldn’t share additional details around the incident in question as “the details of the case will have to come from the DA’s office because it is a filed case. They have all the reports the officers took down.”
Zahra, a Syrian immigrant, was first elected in 2018 and is likely the first openly gay and muslim city council member in the U.S., according to the Orange County Register.
Ferguson said Zahra “has not given his side publicly” beyond statements to the media denying any allegations and expecting the charges to be dismissed.
“We have very few details from anybody,” Ferguson said.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.