Highly influential Orange County Democratic consultant Melahat Rafiei admitted she tried to bribe two members of the Irvine City Council last week in a plea deal with federal prosecutors, opening up big questions on what other work she’s done at city hall.
Rafaei’s plea deal is also putting an uncomfortable spotlight on her close relationship with Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan, who has steadfastly defended her close ally. The same day the plea deal was announced, competing council members announced plans to run for the mayor’s seat.
Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder announced earlier this week she’s calling for an investigation of Rafiei’s work in Irvine, and plans to publicly discuss it with her colleagues on Tuesday.
Rafiei was one of the biggest names behind the scenes of Orange County politics until last May, when it came out she’d been arrested by the FBI and turned into a confidential witness for their investigation into the sale of Angel Stadium and alleged corruption in Anaheim.
While Rafiei disputed federal agents’ claim that she’d been arrested, most of the clients for her political consulting company Progressive Solutions departed en masse, issuing statements they had no idea Rafiei had broken the law.
One high-profile local politician went against that tide.
At the time, Khan stood by Rafiei, calling her “my friend and advisor,” and told constituents that “assumptions and misinformation are at an all time high right now.”
Alaleh Kamran, Rafiei’s attorney, said she has not worked for anyone in Orange County since June 1, 2022.
“While she may have communicated with people over the last six months, none of it had to do with advocacy,” Kamran said. “None of the conversations dealt with anything of relevance to advocacy, lobbying, or a specific agenda.”
Khan isn’t returning calls for comment.
Several other Irvine officials dispute that Rafiei’s work in Irvine ended last May, with city manager Oliver Chi confirming to Voice of OC that Rafiei was still a regular presence at city hall.
“When Melahat would inquire, it was typically about City related business and/or programs,” Chi said in a text to Voice of OC.
Councilwoman Tammy Kim said that she was aware of Rafiei speaking to the city manager in recent months.
What Work Did Rafiei Do For the Mayor?
Before the release of the FBI affidavit, Rafiei served as one of Khan’s primary representatives, regularly interacting with city staff on the mayor’s behalf and placing one of her employees, Cory Allen, as Khan’s chief of staff.
She also served as an intermediary for members of the community who wanted to speak with Khan, with Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder pointing out that when she had complaints about the OC Power Authority last year when she was a community activist, she wasn’t directed to speak to her mayor – she was sent to Rafiei.
It’s a situation very similar to the relationship between former Anaheim Mayor Sidhu and ex-CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Ament.
Shortly after the corruption probe became public last May, former Anaheim City Manager Chris Zapata told Voice of OC that Ament was a routine presence at city hall influencing policy making – especially the Angel Stadium land sale.
Kim, who was also a former client of Rafiei’s, also said Rafiei heavily influenced the mayor’s daily routine before the Anaheim disclosures and regularly had contact with city staff, including the city attorney and others.
“Her talking points were being written by Melahat and she was in the room for all her meetings,” Kim said in an interview. “If the mayor wants to communicate in a certain way or through certain intermediaries, then staff is put in a position where they need to defer to the mayor.”
Kim, who also hired Rafiei as a consultant, said that Rafiei tried to operate in a similar way while the two worked together, and that it was ultimately why the two parted ways.
She said she wouldn’t let Rafiei talk to city staff.
“She called me her worst client because I did not allow the interfacing between city staff. I did not allow interfacing with any other policy people like lobbyists and what not,” Kim said.
Rafiei also had a history of working in Irvine politics before Kim or Khan were elected, admitting in her plea deal this week that she attempted to bribe two members of the Irvine City Council in 2018 to pass an ordinance that would let a client of hers, among others, open a cannabis dispensary.
To read the plea deal, click here.
The attempted bribes totalled $225,000, while Rafiei asked for at least $350,000 for arranging the deal, with plans to disguise the bribes as attorneys fees.
“The payments had to be ‘maneuvered’ in this way to circumvent the Elected Officials disclosure requirements, as – according to defendant – Elected Officials were not required to identify legal clients on disclosure forms,” prosecutors wrote in the plea deal.
The plea deal doesn’t say if the payments went through or not.
Rafiei declined to comment for this article, referring reporters to her attorney.
Did Rafiei Ever Stop Working For the Mayor?
Rafiei’s name first came up in the FBI’s investigation after they released affidavits concerning the sale of Angel Stadium.
Federal agents pointed to a “CW1,” as one of their primary witnesses, claiming this source wore a wire to meetings with unnamed political consultants after FBI agents arrested her for attempted bribery or theft of Irvine City Councilmembers in 2019.
Rafiei later identified herself to Voice of OC as CW1, but denied she was ever arrested or charged.
Despite initially supporting Rafiei after the release of the affidavits, Khan said she cut ties with her shortly after, according to a second statement released a few days after her initial supportive message.
“The press has reported that a former consultant for my campaign, Melahat Rafiei, is a cooperating witness in the investigation, unrelated to her work on my campaign. Ms. Rafiei is no longer involved in any way with my campaign,” read
s Khan’s May 25 statement.
Irvine City Manager Oliver Chi said while Rafiei’s presence around city hall decreased after May, she didn’t disappear altogether.
He said the two spoke a couple times a month.
“The reality is I’m not sure what capacity she had in association with any candidate, I don’t know if there was any official role,” Chi said in an interview. “It felt like an advisory capacity…so she could help formulate advice for whoever she was interfacing with on the council.”
Councilmembers Larry Agran, Kathleen Treseder and Tammy Kim have denied that Rafiei was working for them over the last six months.
Last October, Khan was still defending Rafiei on Twitter, replying to complaints about her work and allegations that she herself was under FBI investigation for political favors Rafiei arranged.
“Melahat was not arrested, there is no record of arrest,” Khan said.
On Facebook, Khan said all the complaints were drummed up for the campaign to help others get into office.
“Candidates with little to no accomplishments in the community are busy spreading misinformation and lies to distract from their non-existing achievements,” Khan wrote. “I am not under any FBI investigation. I have nothing to hide and have not received any political favors.”
Treseder, who was directly referenced in one of Khan’s social media posts, says she hopes that the plea deal will clear up who was telling the truth.
“I tell the truth, and sometimes that’s uncomfortable to say but it’s important for me to tell the truth to the public,” Treseder said. “I hope (the public) can assess for themselves now who is telling the truth.”
Will There Be An Investigation?
Treseder said she plans to call for an investigation of all Rafiei’s work in Irvine at the council’s meeting next Tuesday.
“Because it seems that Melahat was very involved in the operations of the city of Irvine, it’s important for us to do our own investigation to make sure there wasn’t any undue influence,” Treseder said in an interview.
Anaheim’s in the middle of its own internal probe, with contracted investigators examining contracts and campaign donations in recent years.
Kim said she didn’t want to do an investigation unless they could access Khan’s personal cell phone, and that without it they wouldn’t find much.
“It sounds good in theory…but the reality is unless you can get a judge’s order to confiscate Farrah’s personal phone I don’t know if an investigation will really do much,” Kim said.
Councilman Larry Agran said he was unsure which way he’d vote on an investigation, and that he wanted to review the issue first.
“It’s just a shame when this kind of stuff happens in cities and among people we know,” Agran said. “It kind of leaves a question in my mind too of what more is there to come.”
Kim and Agran both announced intentions to run for mayor in 2024 on Thursday night, which will be an open race because Khan is termed out of the mayor’s seat that year.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and a corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or Twitter @NBiesiada.