This story has been updated to include new statements from more OC Fair Board directors.
The FBI corruption probe into an exclusive “cabal” of powerful people who allegedly control Anaheim from behind the scenes has also put a spotlight on the relationships between board members in charge of the OC Fairgrounds, of all places.
As it turns out, a seatholder on the fairgrounds’ Governor-appointed Board of Directors just revealed she’s a central witness in the Anaheim investigation – one who cooperated after being arrested by the FBI in 2019 over a corruption probe centered on Irvine, according to FBI filings.
That OC Fair Board Director, Melahat Rafiei, is a top California Democratic Party official and has in earlier statements denied the illegal activity described by FBI agent Brian Adkins in a sworn affidavit made public this week.
Rafiei is the board’s newest member — an appointee of Gov. Gavin Newsom in September last year.
But she isn’t the only fairgrounds leader feeling the impact of a municipal scandal that some in Orange County are now comparing to the City of Bell of the late 2000s.
She was a political campaign consultant for fellow sitting Fair Board Director Ashleigh Aitken, who’s running for office in Anaheim this year to challenge the first named subject of the FBI corruption investigation: Mayor Harry Sidhu.
Aitken’s campaign paid at least $10,000 to Rafiei’s firm, Progressive Solutions Consulting, between July and December of last year, according to state-required campaign finance disclosures.
Rafiei, also an appointed member of Anaheim’s city culture and heritage commission, didn’t respond to phone and text messages seeking comment on Friday.
Aitken – whose father Wylie Aitken is chairman of the Voice of OC’s Board of Directors – has called on Rafiei to resign from the Fair Board in light of the news, responding to questions in a Friday statement over text message.
“As a former federal prosecutor, I take all violations of public trust seriously. Progressive Solutions Consulting worked briefly for my campaign, but I terminated our relationship immediately when I learned Ms. Rafiei was the subject of a federal investigation involving Irvine. I was not made aware of any prior arrest, or any activity involving Anaheim. For the good of the institution, and for transparency, she should step down from the Fair Board and all positions involving public trust,” Aitken wrote.
“I learned in early February and we parted ways immediately,” Aitken added.
As it also turns out, another OC Fair Board member, Natalie Rubalcava-Garcia, is running for the Anaheim City Council this year.
Rubalcava-Garcia’s also the Chief Operating Officer for the Orange County Business Council, which endorsed Sidhu for mayor in 2018 and has publicly supported the controversial sale of Angel Stadium, which has been a focus of the FBI probe.
On top of that, Rubalcava-Garcia received campaign money from Rafiei, according to the council candidate’s campaign finance disclosure reports.
“On the Fair Board right now, there’s what I call the tumbleweed of conflicts,” said Reggie Mundekis, a close observer of the state-owned fairgrounds’ role in Orange County and a watchdog of the Fair Board’s spending.
Rubalcava-Garcia said she told her treasurer “to send back the unsolicited contribution our campaign received,” in an emailed response to questions following the initial publication of this story.
She also said Rafiei should resign.
Ten miles south of Orange County’s largest city, the county fairgrounds is no stranger to an Anaheim-level government controversy.
An effort to privatize and sell the fairgrounds more than a decade ago was met with community protests, a fruitless District Attorney investigation, but an eventual barring of the sale in 2011 by former governor Jerry Brown.
The fairgrounds history rhymes with a central issue in the Anaheim FBI probe: “The sale of public assets,” Mundekis said.
Authorities in the Anaheim probe said Sidhu passed key city information to the Angels through lobbyists during negotiations leading up to the controversial sale of the 150-acre Angel Stadium property.
It’s always the “same story,” said Mundekis, one voice who opposed the fairgrounds sale attempt back in the day.
“A continuing threat in OC is the sale of public assets. We saw that during the county bankruptcy, when there was the proposal to sell off parks to generate cash to help pay down the bankruptcy; during the attempted sale of the fairgrounds; and now during the sale of Angel Stadium,” she said.
Aitken, a Democrat, was a key leader in the lawsuit that eventually blocked the attempted sale of the OC Fairgrounds by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and later ran unsuccessfully in 2018 against Sidhu, a Republican, for the mayor’s office.
Sidhu’s reelection prospects are now unclear and his reelection fundraisers are on pause, as the entire City Council – many of whom once coalesced as a majority voting bloc under him – have requested he resign in light of the FBI filings being made public.
Aitken publicly opposed Sidhu and the council majority on the stadium issue.
She’s also been outspoken against the heavily political influence of Anaheim’s largest economic interests backing the majority: the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Angels Baseball, and the Disneyland Resort area.
Ada Briceño, Chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County, called on Rafiei to resign from all her positions in an interview with Voice of OC on Friday.
“The Democratic Party will never condone misconduct. I trust the facts will come out in due course and the Democratic Party of Orange County supports a full investigation of corruption against any individual,” Briceño said in a Friday morning phone call with Voice of OC.
“I think she should resign,” said Briceño, who later added via text message that she was talking about all of Rafiei’s positions.
Since Fair Board members are appointed by the Governor of California, the Board itself “has no authority to appoint or remove board members,” said OC Fair spokesperson Terry Moore, responding to requests for comment with a Friday text message .
In the years after the fairgrounds sale was halted, Mundekis said OC Fair stakeholders have gotten better management and have “found new ways to benefit our ever-changing Orange County communities.”
Mundekis said locals and fair officials have taken a hard look at what the fairgrounds’ role is for Orange County and what it should look like — from the representation of local Orange County food in the fair season to weighing how much of an entrepreneurial venture the fair should be.
“What we’re seeing in the Anaheim stadium sale is …we ended up with a deal that didn’t have the interest of the public but was structured to help the insiders move forward,” Mundekis said. “Now that the insiders have been outed, the public can then decide how we want to handle Anaheim’s stadium moving forward — do we want to sell it? What do we want it to look like in the future?”
“It’s the same story,” Mundekis said. “It’s an old movie that’s been re-adapted for 2022. It’s a story that will always be retold in Orange County.”
Reporter Noah Biesiada contributed reporting.