Irvine leaders narrowly voted against conducting a review of their city’s inner workings amid allegations of attempted bribery of two council members in 2018, opting to wait and see whether an investigation from the FBI sheds any light on the issue.
Melahat Rafiei, a high-profile Democratic leader and consultant, admitted to attempting to bribe those council members and has remained a regular presence at city hall since news of her crimes came to light last May, according to city manager Oliver Chi.
Some councilmembers called for an immediate investigation to root out possible corruption, while others pointed to a controversial investigation surrounding the Great Park in 2013 as a rationale for avoiding a city probe.
Questions around potential corruption in Irvine have been circulating since last May, when an FBI affidavit focused on an alleged pay-to-play scheme in Anaheim over the sale of Angel Stadium mentioning that a source known as CW1 attempted to bribe two Irvine City Council members.
In a sworn affidavit released last May, FBI special agent Brian Adkins said former Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu tried ramming through the Angel Stadium sale for $1 million in campaign contributions from team officials.
According to the affidavit, after CW1 was arrested for the attempted bribe, they began cooperating with the federal investigation and wore a wire to meetings with consultants involved in Anaheim’s pay to play scheme.
The Anaheim land sale fell apart and Sidhu resigned, maintaining he’s done no wrong and hasn’t been publicly charged with a crime.
Melahat Rafiei later identified herself to Voice of OC as CW1, but maintained her innocence over the past year until she signed a plea deal last week.
She also admitted to the attempted bribery case in her signed plea deal, saying she arranged for $225,000 to go to two Irvine City Council members in 2018, but was not charged for it by prosecutors.
That shined a spotlight on Rafiei’s past work in Irvine across numerous city council campaigns, most notably for her role in helping elect Farrah Khan as Irvine’s mayor.
It also opened questions over who it was she tried to bribe after the U.S. The Attorney’s Office refused to disclose the council members’ identities to the public, saying their names would not be released unless they were charged with a crime.
At Tuesday night’s city council meeting, Khan called not to investigate Rafiei’s work, saying she had concerns that any investigation could turn into a politicized attack against herself at taxpayer expense and claiming she cut ties with Rafiei after the news of the arrest broke.
“If she has had communication with staff, it has been outside my work here,” Khan said. “It’s important for us to seek justice and be sure there is no corruption, but more importantly putting out false information and accusing people falsely is even more dangerous.”
Councilman Larry Agran agreed, pointing to an investigation of the Great Park that he said cost the city over $2 million, went on for years and was criticized by the state auditor as an improper audit in 2016.
“There is an ongoing public corruption investigation by the FBI, having read that plea bargain and agreement, it’s pretty clear that there was more than just an attempt to solicit a bribe, that somebody was biting on the other end,” Agran said. “They don’t quit. It’s not going to stop here.”
Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder disagreed, pointing out how it took three years for Rafiei’s arrest by the FBI to become public knowledge and that the city could have questions the FBI fails to answer.
“I appreciate the FBI does investigate, they’re working on at least certain aspects of the issue, we can’t guarantee they’re working on the issues we care about,” Treseder said. “They have limited person power. They’ve told me this, they would like to investigate much more potential corruption in Orange County but they only have so many agents.”
Treseder called for an immediate investigation from an outside contractor, with plans to report their progress within a month.
Anaheim commissioned their own investigation into corruption after the FBI affidavit was released, with investigators pledging they found “great stuff,” last October, but nothing has been released yet.
Councilwoman Tammy Kim, another former client of Rafiei’s, said she also wanted an investigation quickly to clear anyone of any perceived wrongdoing.
“I don’t want to get in the way of what our residents are asking for,” Kim said. “They’re really asking for a level of transparency and really wanting to understand how someone who is not affiliated with the city was able to engage in multiple parts of the city.”
Councilman Mike Carroll was the last council member to speak on the issue, and his answer was simple – wait and see what the FBI does.
“If we act now, we won’t know what would have happened potentially,” Carroll said. “But if we don’t act…we preserve our ability to consider to do something.”
Ultimately, the council voted 3-2 to do nothing, with Treseder and Kim voting to move forward with an investigation.
It remains unclear when Orange County could get its next peek at the FBI’s investigation.
Rafiei’s court appearance is scheduled for February 6, and the sentencing for Todd Ament, the former CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce who was caught up in the investigation, is scheduled for March 24.
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.