When influential Orange County Democratic consultant Melahat Rafiei announced she was taking a plea deal with federal investigators for attempted wire fraud last week, it sent shockwaves through the local community.
But one of the biggest revelations in the plea agreement wasn’t what she was charged for.
In her plea agreement, Rafiei admitted to trying to bribe two Irvine City Council members on behalf of a client in 2018 to bring a cannabis dispensary to the city.
To read the plea agreement, click here.
The two council members referenced in the plea deal are unnamed.
Irvine leaders are set to discuss commencing an investigation into Rafiei’s work and the identity of the two council members at tonight’s city council meeting.
According to the plea deal Rafiei signed, some time between April and June of 2018 Rafiei agreed to pay $225,000 in bribes to two members of the Irvine City Council in exchange for a city ordinance that would let commercial cannabis shops move into Irvine.
Rafiei pitched the idea to an individual who was then employed in the medical cannabis industry, and to that individual’s partner. But those clients were already confidential sources for the FBI according to the plea.
Rafiei and the FBI informants met with both of the council members to discuss the plan according to the plea agreement, which was signed by Rafiei and her lawyer.
During those meetings Rafiei explained that they couldn’t pay the council members directly, and the funds “had to be ‘maneuvered’ in this way to circumvent the Elected Officials’ disclosure requirements,” according to the plea deal.
Instead of paying the elected officials directly, Rafiei had another plan.
The informants would pay her, and she would then pay the council members, disguising the bribes as attorney fees for legal services through one of her many public affairs and campaign advisement companies.
Rafiei said elected officials aren’t required to disclose attorneys on any disclosure paperwork according to the plea deal.
Elected Official 1 asked for $200,000, while Elected Official 2 asked for $25,000, and Rafiei asked for at least $350,000 in exchange for arranging the bribe, according to the plea deal documents filed with the United States District Court for the Central District of California, Southern Division.
Rafiei also introduced the idea of using the second council member to introduce the ordinance, which had to be done in the near future.
“(Rafiei) explained that the ordinance needed to be introduced while Elected Official 1 could vote on it,” prosecutors stated in the plea.
None of the 2018 council members currently remain on the Irvine City Council, and county Supervisor Don Wagner is the only one that remains in elected office.
Councilmembers Jeff Lalloway and Lynn Schott left at the end of 2018 as their terms in office ended.
Then-Mayor Don Wagner won election to the county board of supervisors in 2019.
Councilmember Christina Shea lost her bid for Mayor in 2020, and Melissa Fox left the council after she lost her race for State Assembly that same year.
Wagner and Councilmembers Lalloway and Fox were the only lawyers on the council at the time.
In a phone call with Voice of OC, Wagner denied having any knowledge of any potential bribe, saying the only information he had was contained in Voice of OC’s reporting.
“That is all news to me and I have no idea who she (Rafiei) might in fact mean by that,” Wagner said.
Fox and Lalloway did not return multiple calls or texts for comment from Voice of OC.
Former Mayor Christina Shea also denied any knowledge of the bribe, saying she’d never met Rafiei and did not support access to recreational marijuana.
“I am not into marijuana, I didn’t want to support it, it wasn’t good for the community,” Shea said. “I think it was clear I was not a supporter of retail marijuana.”
Ciaran McEvoy, a spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office, said it’s standard policy not to include the names of anyone in a plea agreement who had not been charged with a crime.
“Clearly these people would not necessarily be victims, but if someone’s mentioned even if they’re not charged with a crime it’s a reputational hit,” McEvoy said.
When asked if either council member would be charged with a crime, McEvoy declined to comment, stating the US Attorneys don’t comment on potential or active investigations.
The only public discussion of cannabis by the Irvine City Council in 2018 took place on Jan. 23, four years ago yesterday.
The discussion was focused on allowing cannabis testing laboratories to open in Irvine, and explicitly stated that recreational cannabis and other purposes were still illegal in the city.
Testing facilities don’t sell or distribute cannabis in any way, and are designed to test cannabis for any impurities like heavy metals.
Councilwoman Lynn Schott was absent from the meeting, and the rest of the council unanimously voted to move forward with allowing cannabis testing sites, with the law going into effect March 29 of that year.
The city still does not allow commercial cannabis sales.
While no answers are coming yet from the US Attorney’s office, Irvine city council members are looking to find their own answers at their Tuesday night meeting.
Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder has already called for an investigation of all Rafiei’s work in the city, which put a spotlight on Mayor Farrah Khan, who was known for her close ties to Rafiei.
[Read: Consultant’s Controversial Plea Deal Spurs Calls for Irvine City Hall Probe, Puts Spotlight on Mayor]
After the release of the plea deal, Irvine added a special discussion on Rafiei’s plea for city council “discussion and directions,” at their special 3 p.m. meeting on Tuesday night.
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.
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