For the last seven months, prominent OC Democratic Party power broker Melahat Rafiei has publicly insisted she was not arrested by the FBI when she became a confidential witness in their investigation of corruption in Anaheim.
But yesterday, she signed a plea deal for felony attempted wire fraud and admitted to attempted bribery of two members of the Irvine City Council in 2018, who are not named in records released by the Department of Justice.
To review her signed plea agreement, click here.
According to her plea, Rafiei agreed to try to give at least $225,000 in bribes to two Irvine City Councilmembers in April 2018 to pass new rules allowing one of her clients to open a retail cannabis store in Irvine.
She planned to disguise the payments by entering into legal retainer agreements with both council members, disguising the bribes as attorneys fees, prosecutors found.
“In June 2018, Rafiei caused a contract to be drafted between herself and Elected Official 2, the terms of which included a $25,000 retainer for ‘legal services.’ Later, Rafiei explained to the individual’s business partner that Elected Official 2 had asked for approximately $25,000 and that Elected Official 1 had asked for $200,000,” reads a news release from U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In a news release, federal prosecutors said they found that the proposed retainer was an attempt to circumvent disclosure requirements. She’s only being charged with attempted wire fraud, not attempted bribery.
According to the plea agreement, Rafiei attempted to defraud one of her commercial cannabis clients by asking for $300,000 to pass a cannabis ordinance in Anaheim, claiming she would only keep $10,000.
In reality, Rafiei was already working on that ordinance for another client, and instead pocketed $100,000 of the fee, while another $100,000 was given to “an associate of hers,” according to a news release from federal prosecutors.
The entirety of the $300,000 was sent to various accounts Rafiei controlled.
“Defendant RAFIEI would instruct Victim 1 to pay the $300,000 via checks that would be deposited into financial accounts controlled by defendant RAFIEI, thereby causing the transmission of wire communications in interstate commerce,” prosecutors wrote in her plea agreement.
After she enters her guilty plea for wire fraud, Rafiei could face up to 20 years in federal prison according to the news release from the Department of Justice.
In a private message to several OC politicians before the plea was released, Rafiei said she was grateful for everyone who stood with her and hoped one day she could move past the issue.
“I can only hope that, given my contributions and achievements, my life and legacy will not be defined by this painful chapter, and that in time, my life will evolve well beyond this moment,” Rafiei wrote.
Rafiei was a key player in both the local and state Democratic Party for years, serving as the former executive director of the Orange County Democratic Party and secretary of the state party.
She also frequently worked as a consultant on several campaigns including Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan through her company Progressive Solutions Consulting.
But last May, Rafiei was referenced as a key witness in an FBI affidavit that alleged the entire plan to sell Angel Stadium to the Angels was a corrupt pay to play scheme, killing the deal at the eleventh hour.
Not only did the corruption probe kill the Angel Stadium land sale, it also rocked the local political scene.
Former Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned and former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce Todd Ament pleaded guilty to a series of charges in the wake of the FBI’s corruption probe. Sidhu, who hasn’t been publicly charged with a crime, has denied any wrongdoing.
At the time, Rafiei confirmed to Voice of OC that she was a confidential witness referenced by federal agents – known in the affidavits as “CW1.”
In their sworn affidavits, FBI special agents say Rafiei began cooperating with them after she was arrested in Oct. 2019 for planning to bribe two members of the Irvine City Council.
The charges were dropped without prejudice after Rafiei agreed to cooperate, meaning they could be brought back at any time.
Agents also said they believe Rafiei “lied” to them and “omitted material facts to investigators,” during interviews, and “lacked candor at times.”
At the time, Rafiei denied lying to agents and claimed she was never arrested through her spokesperson Ann Solomon.
“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 said last May.
Rafiei resigned all her positions with the party last year after the FBI affidavits indicated she was arrested, and has largely stayed out of the public spotlight over the last six months.
The plea has also sent shockwaves throughout Orange County’s political circles.
Irvine Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder, who claimed on the campaign trail that she spoke with FBI investigators about what she considered illegal work by Rafiei’s work at the OC Power Authority, said she plans to call for an investigation on her connections to city hall.
“I will be asking for an investigation into her alleged activities in city hall–which may have been ongoing well past after last spring’s news about her arrest,” Treseder wrote in a tweet Wednesday night. “The public deserves to know the truth.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.