Farrah Khan overwhelmingly lost when she ran for Irvine City Council for the first time in 2016, falling 7,500 votes short of victory and landing in a distant fourth place.
Four years later, she was elected mayor of Orange County’s second largest city by a 13,500-vote margin, beating an incumbent with nearly 20 years experience on the city council.
One of Khan’s biggest shifts in that time was hiring a new campaign manager: Melahat Rafiei.
Rafiei was a rare combination: secretary of the California Democratic Party and a representative to the Democratic National Committee, she also had a strong campaign operation in Southern California that helped elect many Orange County Democrats.
While she’s been a major player behind the scenes of Orange County politics for over a decade, Rafiei was only drawn into the spotlight last year after it came out the FBI arrested her for attempted bribery in 2019.
Last month, she pleaded guilty to attempted wire fraud against one of her clients in Anaheim and admitted she attempted to bribe two Irvine City Council members in 2018 for favorable cannabis legislation.
And most recently, there have been concerns raised in Irvine that Rafiei remained a presence at city hall trying to influence policy making after news of her arrest became public.
While the focus of the FBI investigation has been on Rafiei’s work in Irvine and Anaheim, her influence didn’t stop at the city or even county borders, with an extensive list of clients throughout Southern California.
No former clients have yet been charged with any crimes in connection to the FBI probe, but Rafiei’s arrest has directed a spotlight on her business relations with those in public office.
Who Were Rafiei’s Political Clients?
A full list of Rafiei’s past clients isn’t publicly available, and Rafiei’s attorney declined to provide Voice of OC with the list or speak to the specifics of her political work with clients.
And only one of Rafiei’s previous or current clients wanted to speak on the record about her experiences with Rafiei.
Multiple people who worked alongside Rafiei said she was very involved in policy making, advising her candidate clients on legislation and purporting to speak on their behalf behind closed doors – an unusual position for a consultant.
A Voice of OC review of over a decade of campaign finance disclosures throughout OC found she ran one of the most widespread consulting firms in the county.
Rafiei’s consulting work started in 2009 with then-Irvine Councilwoman Beth Krom’s failed congressional run.
From there, Rafiei’s business expanded throughout Orange County with city council members like Anaheim Councilman Jordan Brandman, Irvine Councilman Larry Agran and Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido winning elections with her help according to the candidates’ disclosure records.
By 2015, her reach expanded beyond OC, working on multiple races for Long Beach City Council, with six current city council members and the mayor on her list of clients the records show.
She also worked on campaigns for mayors of all three of Orange County’s largest cities.
Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken paid Rafiei from Dec. 2021 to Feb. 2022, according to city campaign records, ending the relationship, she said, when Rafiei told her of her arrest by the FBI, which prompted her to immediately cut ties.
Aitken’s father, Wylie, is chairman of the Voice of OC board of directors.
Santa Ana Mayor Valerie Amezcua hired Rafiei from 2018 to 2019 to consult on her run for school board, and Rafiei donated $1,000 to her mayoral run two days before the election but Rafiei did not work on that mayoral campaign according to county and city campaign finance disclosures.
Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan was one of Rafiei’s biggest clients, paying out over $110,000 total from 2018 to 2022 according to city campaign disclosures, paying for assistance on her 2018 run for city council and two subsequent runs for mayor.
In 2018, Rafiei stepped into her first US Senate race, advising now disgraced Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin De Leon’s on his failed senate race against Dianne Feinstein.
She also worked on multiple failed campaigns for county supervisor, backing candidates like Garden Grove Councilwoman Kim Nguyen in her 2020 bid and Joe Kerr’s 2022 run, according to county campaign finance disclosures.
She also had clients all over Orange County, including Huntington Beach Councilman Dan Kalmick, Aliso Viejo Councilwoman Tiffany Ackley and more, the disclosure records show.
Many of those former clients put out statements distancing themselves from Rafiei at the time of her arrest but have been mute on the issue since.
Role in Clients Work
The precise role Rafiei played in each of her clients’ work fluctuated from client to client, according to their public statements and public records.
All but one of her former clients declined to comment when contacted by Voice of OC about what work she did for their campaigns or while in office, but most list her work as “consulting,” in campaign disclosures.
The best look residents got of Rafiei’s work comes in Irvine, where multiple council members are calling out her work and questioning how she interfaced with city staff on behalf of Mayor Khan, who says those interactions ended when her involvement in the FBI probe came out last year.
Irvine Councilwoman Tammy Kim, who also paid Rafiei as a consultant, claims Rafiei regularly tried to insert herself into city hall on Kim’s behalf.
“She called me her worst client because I did not allow the interfacing between city staff,” Kim said in an interview.
Kim also claimed that Rafiei regularly worked with city staff on Khan’s behalf.
“Her talking points were being written by Melahat and she was in the room for all her meetings,” Kim said. “I believe she was on a lot of things, or that Melahat had access to city staff on the mayor’s behalf.”
Irvine Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder began publicly raising complaints about Rafiei’s work while on the campaign trail, claiming in a letter sent to Voice of OC that Rafiei admitted to arranging a deal to put Khan on the state Coastal Commission in exchange for helping OC Power Authority’s CEO Brian Probolsky keep his job.
Khan has denied that any such deal took place.
It remains unclear when Rafiei stopped working for Khan, as she was still a regular presence at city hall over the past year according to city manager Oliver Chi, who said she regularly inquired about policy on behalf of someone on the city council.
Khan has denied that Rafiei did any work for her after May of last year, but Chi said that on at least one occasion Rafiei “implied the mayor was in the loop,” when she called him to ask for information.
“As to whether or not (Khan) was, I can’t say for sure,” Chi said.
Despite the concerns raised by Treseder and Kim, the rest of the city council members declined to investigate Rafiei’s work at city hall last month, including Rafiei’s admitted attempt to bribe council members in 2018.
Rafiei is scheduled to appear in court on April 17 to officially submit a guilty plea according to the US Attorney’s office.
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.