The FBI probe that landed in Anaheim apparently took off from Irvine, another large city in Orange County known for massive special interest campaign spending.
“We’re identical in politics with Anaheim,” said former Irvine Mayor Christina Shea in a phone call with Voice of OC Thursday morning. “Just swap the Angels for FivePoint.”
To be clear, the FBI has not charged FivePoint with anything and there’s no indication they’re a subject of any investigation.
But the recent FBI disclosures from Anaheim are spurring a discussion in Irvine on whether the cash invested by FivePoint and other developers in the city gives them undue influence over the council who’s supposed to keep them in check.
FivePoint did not respond to requests for comment from Voice of OC.
FivePoint has been one of the city’s largest campaign spenders for years, and that influence has bought them the ability to even publicly ignore the city council’s summons in the past without repercussions.
“If you look at the various cities in Orange County, we see a significant amount of special interest money to elections in the city of Irvine,” said Chapman University professor Mike Moodian. “Money is the mother’s milk of politics, whether one likes that or not that’s the reality.”
But that spending isn’t necessarily illegal, and it goes beyond just developers.
“We see a lot of union money that goes into politics, and whether it’s a business interest or a union interest, it’s bipartisan,” Moodian continued. “Both unions and the business interests will support whether they’re Republican or Democrat as long as they’re friendly to them.”
Since 2014, FivePoint alone has invested at least $2.2 million in Irvine City Council races and local ballot measures according to state and local finance records, sending money through organizations like the Friends of the Great Park Political Action Committee that almost exclusively got its money from a single source.
The developer also donated to other groups such as the OC Business PAC and Building Industry Association of Southern California PAC during that same time, two campaign money vehicles that donate to candidates throughout Orange County and Southern California.
That influence has stayed consistent across different council regimes of both partisan colors in recent years.
In the early 2000s, FivePoint was closely allied with then-Mayor Larry Agran and the Democratic majority, but pivoted to supporting Republican candidates around 2012, a fact that was pointed out by former Councilman Jeff Lalloway in 2013 when Agran complained about the developer’s campaign spending.
“Councilman Agran received more money from developers when he and his little group was in control and he’s now claiming that he wasn’t beholden to developers? I believe he approved every project that came before the council for development in the years from 2000 to 2012 when he was in control,” Lalloway said.
Lalloway did not respond to requests for comment on this article.
“Absolutely,” said longtime City Councilman Larry Agran when asked if developers and special interests played an outsized role in the city’s politics.
While Agran worked closely for years with FivePoint to create the original plans for the Great Park, they had a falling out over a decade ago and have been political enemies ever since.
“The real money that comes in, in large amounts comes in through special interests and developers,” Agran said. “Land development in Irvine has been key.”
Shea directly pointed a finger at political consultants like Melahat Rafiei, a longtime leader in the California Democratic Party and Patrick Strader, FivePoint’s chief lobbyist, as one of the big problems facing the city, referring to lobbyist influence as the city’s sixth councilmember.
“It’s not uncommon that major developers in cities raise money. Teachers lobby, police lobby, this is standard,” Shea said. “But what’s going on with FivePoint consultants is much more problematic…it’s a big web of consulting that’s going on that to me is unethical and probably illegal.”
Strader did not respond to questions from Voice of OC.
Rafiei, a ranking member of the state’s Democratic Party and one of the county’s most powerful political consultants, resigned earlier this week.
She admitted to cooperating with the investigation into Anaheim following her arrest by the FBI in 2019 for allegedly trying to bribe Irvine city council members.
While Rafiei denies any wrongdoing, FBI agents say they think she lied to them, referring to her as Confidential Witness 1 in their legal filings charging Todd Ament, the former CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, with mortgage fraud.
“I also believe CW1 has omitted material facts to investigators throughout CW1’s cooperation with the FBI, including additional instances where CW1 has offered to pay bribes to elected public officials,” wrote FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins, where he also stated Melahat quit cooperating.
“CW1 and the government have not been able to reach an agreement on a pre-indictment resolution, and at this time, there is no further cooperation expected.”
While most of the news on the investigation has centered on Anaheim, a lot of Irvine residents want to know who she was trying to bribe in Irvine and what other work she may have done in the city, and it’s opened a broader conversation on special interests spending in the city.
“I hope the FBI will be similarly forthcoming and detailed about what they have discovered in Irvine,” said Kathleen Treseder, a local climate activist and Irvine City Council candidate. “These issues need to be addressed and the corruption needs to be rooted out.”
While Rafiei was arrested over three years ago, she continues to play a big role in Irvine politics.
Rafiei is Mayor Farrah Khan’s chief political consultant through her consulting company Progressive Solutions Consulting, helping her win election in 2020 and currently helping run her 2022 mayoral campaign.
“She goes to all important meetings with Farrah,” said Branda Lin, one of the founders of the Irvine Watchdog blog who used to serve as one of Khan’s appointed commissioners. “Farrah would always say, ‘You hire a consultant and do what they say’, don’t question them.”
According to campaign filings, Khan paid Rafiei over $14,000 last year.
In addition to that, Cory Allen is serving as both Khan’s executive assistant and as Campaign and Policy Director at Progressive Solutions, Rafiei’s consulting company, and was paid $15,000 from September 2021 to March 2022 as Khan’s assistant according to city records.
Rafiei did not return requests for a comment from Voice of OC.
Khan is one of, if not the only, elected official in Orange County publicly standing with Rafiei, saying she deserved “credit for rooting out this corruption.”
“The recent news about the FBI’s investigation into public corruption in Anaheim is disappointing and sows mistrust in local government,” Khan posted on Twitter. “I stand with (Rafiei) and believe our justice system will do its job and clear her name.”
Khan also did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and a Report for America fellow, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.