Former Irvine Councilwoman Melissa Fox broke her silence on the FBI probe on attempted bribery at city hall, and said that the issue wasn’t attempted bribery, but fraud.
Melahat Rafiei, a high-profile Democratic leader and consultant, admitted to attempting to bribe two Irvine City Council members in a signed federal plea agreement last week, that in 2018 she tried to give $225,000 to the council members in exchange for allowing commercial cannabis in the city.
In her plea agreement, Rafiei said she would disguise the bribe payments as legal fees, paying them out to the interested council members, so they wouldn’t have to be disclosed anywhere.
Now, one of those supposed elected officials is stepping forward.
Fox identified herself as Elected Official 2 in an email to Voice of OC, but said she never once discussed accepting a bribe.
In a statement to Voice of OC, Fox said she was instead approached by Rafiei about providing legal work for Rafiei’s consulting firm, Progressive Solutions.
“I informed her that under a city ordinance I was not legally permitted to represent any client before a governmental body anywhere in Orange County. Rafiei agreed that I would do no work impacting Irvine and I quoted her my regular hourly fee and my regular retainer, and thereafter sent her a proposed retainer agreement,” Fox wrote.
A few weeks later, Fox wrote in her statement she was invited to meet with Rafiei and one of her clients who “had a cannabis business headquarters in Irvine,” which Fox claimed was a common occurrence and that the meeting had “no specific agenda.”
Afterwards, Fox wrote she was contacted by the FBI in May 2022, with the FBI claiming that Rafiei used that legal retainer as evidence for her client that Fox was accepting a bribe to introduce a cannabis ordinance.
“I also learned from the FBI that Rafiei had told other clients that she needed money to bribe officials and then simply pocketed the money herself,” Fox stated.
Alaleh Kamran, Rafiei’s attorney, didn’t speak to any specifics of Fox’s statement when asked for comment by Voice of OC.
“To the extent that Ms Fox is stating any facts that are within her personal knowledge I would defer to her,” Kamran said in a text message to Voice of OC.
Officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on Fox’s statement.
In the plea agreement signed by Rafiei, prosecutors claimed that Rafiei and a member of the Irvine City Council identified as Elected Official 1 met with clients of Rafiei’s who were in the cannabis business in 2018, with plans to introduce a commercial cannabis ordinance for the city.
But both of Rafiei’s clients were confidential sources for the FBI.
Elected Official 1 was the first one contacted in the scheme, and planned to use Elected Official 2 to introduce the ordinance, according to Rafiei’s plea agreement.
Fox claims she is Elected Official 2.
Rafiei told her clients that both Elected Officials were “on board,” with the bribe and brought Elected Official 2 to meet with the cannabis clients shortly after, according to the plea agreement.
Once Elected Official 2 left the meeting, Rafiei told her clients the official had asked for $25,000 and that Elected Official 1 had asked for $200,000 in exchange for putting the issue on the council agenda.
The plea agreement also states that Rafiei asked for a draft of a legal retainer with Fox, valued at $25,000 for “legal services.”
Fox said the $25,000 figure was accurate, but declined to provide a copy of the retainer.
The FBI probe’s impacts have been felt throughout Orange County – especially in Anaheim.
Federal agents allege former Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu tried to ram through the Angel Stadium land sale for $1 million in campaign contributions from the ball team. Sidhu, who resigned the same day the stadium deal collapsed last May, has maintained he’s done nothing wrong and hasn’t been publicly charged with a crime.
Former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament pleaded guilty to a series of federal fraud charges last year. Ament was a close ally of Sidhu.
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.
Last night, a majority of Irvine City Council Members refused to launch an internal investigation into Rafiei’s alleged business dealings at city hall.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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