This story has been updated.
One of Orange County’s highest-profile political consultants – who’s also a high ranking California Democratic Party official – has confirmed to Voice of OC that she cooperated with an FBI corruption investigation into Anaheim’s city government that burst into public view this week.
The federal probe, which relied on numerous recorded conversations through wiretaps and cooperating witnesses, is investigating Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu and others for – among other things – corruption surrounding the sale of Angel Stadium.
Melahat Rafiei – who advises OC candidates like Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan as well as marijuana businesses and was recently appointed to the OC Fair Board by Gov. Gavin Newsom – is now publicly confirming her involvement in the investigation. She’s the first person to do so.
“In 2019, I was approached by the FBI who wrongly believed that I was involved in improperly influencing public officials. I cooperated fully with the FBI – doing what I could to help in their effort to root out corruption in Anaheim city government,” Rafiei said in a written statement after being contacted by a Voice of OC reporter.
“I have faith in our legal system and I am confident that in the end, I will be vindicated and my name cleared of any involvement in public corruption,” she added.
Rafiei is one of the highest-ranking officials in the California Democratic Party, serving as its secretary.
An FBI public document describes one of their witnesses in the corruption probe as someone involved in Irvine politics who represented marijauna clients, and cooperated after being arrested by the FBI on October 28, 2019 over a corruption probe centered on Irvine.
The witness isn’t named, but called “CW1” in the filing, for “Cooperating Witness 1.”
Rafiei at first would not confirm or deny if she is CW1 in response to questions from Voice of OC.
But after this article was published, she confirmed on the record that she is indeed “CW1.”
According to the federal documents, “CW1” ultimately helped the FBI gather evidence that targeted Anaheim corruption involving then-Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament and an unnamed political consultant, according to the federal criminal complaint filed this week against Ament.
Rafiei said Thursday she was not aware of any criminal charges against her regarding the Anaheim probe, and declined to answer any further questions for this article, citing the ongoing investigation.
The FBI alleges that their earlier probe in 2018 and 2019 found that “CW1” had planned to solicit money from a pair of marijuana business clients to pay bribes to two Irvine City Council members “in exchange for the Council Members performing official acts” to pass “favorable laws for their cannabis company.”
Those marijuana clients were secretly working for the FBI, according to an FBI affidavit filed publicly in court this week.
Federal authorities wrote they dropped their criminal complaint against “CW1” after the person agreed to cooperate.
According to a federal affidavit, after CW1 began cooperating with authorities, they took an FBI recording device into a meeting with Ament and the unnamed political consultant to help gather evidence they were laundering money in a scheme to defraud a marijuana client and a mortgage lender.
The FBI wrote that CW1’s cooperation led them to understand how tightly controlled Anaheim’s government was by a small group of people.
“Through CW1’s cooperation, the FBI learned that the City of Anaheim was tightly controlled by a small cadre of individuals, to include [Mayor Harry] SIDHU, a particular member of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce (“the Chamber”), and others,” the FBI wrote when summarizing their Anaheim probe for a search warrant targeting the mayor.
No criminal charges have been announced in the Irvine corruption probe, other than a complaint against “CW1” that federal authorities say they later dropped.
Yet federal authorities note in a footnote to an affidavit that their involvement hasn’t ended.
“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,” the FBI wrote in their complaint against Ament.
Special Agent Brian Adkins added in his court affidavit on behalf of the FBI:
“I believe CW1 lied to FBI SAs” (agency lingo for special agents) “during CW1’s interview on October 28, 2019. 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.”
He continued: “However, the FBI has relied on information provided by CW1 in instances where such information has been deemed credible by way of corroboration.”
The wide-ranging federal probe into Anaheim is the biggest corruption investigation to come to light in Orange County in more than a decade and centers on a shadowy web of political consultants and Chamber of Commerce officials coordinating efforts to control the city.
In court documents made public this week, the FBI alleges a series of schemes by Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu and a “cabal” of influential players close to the city’s big business interests.
Among them, the FBI accuses Sidhu of planning to solicit $1 million in campaign cash from the Angels baseball team in exchange for getting them a better deal on buying Angel Stadium from the city.
The mayor also is accused of trying to get a witness to lie to the Orange County Grand Jury in order to conceal the fact Sidhu passed along the city’s confidential negotiation information to the Angels through middlemen.
And the FBI accuses Ament of defrauding a pair of marijuana business operators and a mortgage lender.
Since the probe came to light Monday, it’s led to a halting of the sale of Angel Stadium, resident outrage at a City Council meeting, and calls by five out of the other six council members for Sidhu to resign as mayor.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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