The ongoing federal corruption investigation of Orange County power brokers – which burst into public view last week and forced the mayor of OC’s largest city to resign – is taking a new twist.
A key cooperating witness in the probe is adamant that the FBI was wrong in their sworn affidavits when agents describe her as being arrested before agreeing to work with them.
In federal court affidavits on behalf of the FBI, Special Agent Brian Adkins wrote that a key witness – identified as “CW1” – cooperated after being “arrested” by the FBI in October 2019 in connection with an alleged plan to pay bribes to two Irvine City Council members.
Last week, “CW1” came forward publicly.
Melahat Rafiei, a high-profile Democratic Party official and political consultant, revealed on the record to Voice of OC and the Orange County Register that she was the informant, as speculation about her being “CW1” swirled throughout OC political circles.
Facing mounting pressure from fellow Democrats, Rafiei resigned her state and national Democratic Party positions over the weekend.
But her spokeswoman says the FBI got it wrong in their court filings.
“She was detained – which is not being arrested. She asked specifically, ‘Am I arrested?’ ‘Am I in trouble?’ They said no,” said Ann Solomon, who is representing Rafiei as a spokeswoman.
“If she had been arrested, she would have been photographed, she would have been fingerprinted – none of that happened. No Miranda rights [were read to her]. She voluntarily answered their questions.”
Solomon also said Rafiei cooperated voluntarily and gave the FBI everything they wanted – again disputing the FBI agent’s sworn description that he believes their informant “lied” to FBI agents, “omitted material facts to investigators” and “lacked candor at times.”
Voice of OC sought comment from the FBI’s lead spokesperson in the region, Laura Eimiller.
She declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
A Voice of OC reporter then asked by text message if the FBI stands by the accuracy of its descriptions of their witness – including the arrest.
Eimiller responded: “The affidavits are accurate, yes, of course.”
When Rafiei was detained, she didn’t know anything about the alleged bribery that agents were questioning her about, according to her spokeswoman.
“She had no idea what they were talking about,” Solomon said.
“And apparently that was to their satisfaction, because no charges were filed, the complaint that started all of this has been dismissed, and there was no arrest.”
The FBI affidavit says that after CW1 began cooperating with their probe, federal authorities dismissed their criminal complaint against her “without prejudice,” meaning it could be revived in the future.
Federal authorities also wrote they believed CW1 was cooperating “to receive leniency for the federal criminal violation CW1 was originally arrested for, as well as other possible criminal conduct.”
Rafiei’s spokeswoman said she cooperated because she wanted to help expose corruption, and never asked for leniency.
“She is very much about America. She is a refugee. And she figured if the government needed her help, she would help,” Solomon said.
“She never asked for leniency. Why would she? She hadn’t been arrested.”
The FBI, in contrast, described two other informants in very different terms than they did Rafiei.
Those informants – described as “CHS1” and “CHS2” – “agreed to assist the FBI because they were motivated by patriotism and wish to minimize corrupt public officials in the United States,” the FBI affidavit states.
“I have found CHS1 and CHS2 to be credible and reliable as their information has been corroborated by other evidence obtained, including recorded meetings and calls,” Adkins wrote in an FBI affidavit.
An online search Wednesday of publicly-available federal court cases showed no history of criminal cases against Rafiei.
However, federal authorities are able to file criminal charges under seal – with those cases not showing up publicly as long as they’re sealed.
But that’s not the case with Rafiei, according to her spokeswoman.
“It was never filed because she was never arrested,” Solomon said.
Rafiei herself declined to comment for this article, referring requests for information to Solomon.
Solomon also disputed accounts by some of Rafiei’s campaign clients that they only learned of her involvement in the FBI probe last week when it became public, and terminated their contracts with her.
“That’s nonsense,” Solomon said.
“She told all of her clients what was happening when the FBI gave her permission in February.”
One of Rafiei’s former clients, Anaheim mayoral candidate Ashleigh Aitken, said last week that she found out in February that Rafiei “was the subject of a federal investigation involving Irvine” and immediately stopped working with her.
Aitken’s father, Wylie, serves as board chairman for Voice of OC.
The ongoing FBI probe has already had major fallout in Orange County’s biggest city.
Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned earlier this week after the entire rest of the City Council called on him to step down in the wake of the FBI revelations.
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And on Tuesday night, City Council members scrapped the sale of the most valuable asset the city owns – Angel Stadium – to LA Angels owner Arte Moreno.
That came after the FBI alleged Sidhu passed along confidential city negotiation information to Moreno’s company, the LA Angels, in the hopes of later getting $1 million campaign support for his re-election later this year.
FBI affidavits describe agents working with a confidential informant, identified as CW1, which Rafiei identifies herself as.
According to the FBI affidavit, CW1 then wore a recording device to meetings with Sidhu’s close advisor Todd Ament to gather evidence against him, with Ament later agreeing to cooperate with federal authorities against Sidhu.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.