FBI agents walked into Irvine City Hall last week for a sit down with the city manager in their ongoing investigation of the city.
The city has been under a spotlight since Melahat Rafiei, a prominent Democratic leader and former consultant for multiple Irvine city council members, announced she’d accepted a federal plea deal and admitted to attempting to bribe two council members for favorable cannabis legislation in 2018.
Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder announced City Manager Oliver Chi’s cooperation in the federal probe at the council’s Tuesday night meeting, saying it granted him whistleblower protection.
“Some FBI agents did come to city hall and they interviewed our City Manager Oliver Chi and asked questions regarding an ongoing investigation into Irvine,” Treseder said. “I appreciate Mr. Chi answering the questions.”
In an interview with Voice of OC following the public council meeting, Chi said he notified the city council last week when the FBI reached out.
“All I’d be comfortable sharing at this point is they had questions related to an ongoing investigation they’re engaged in related to issues in and around Irvine,” Chi said.
According to an FBI affidavit released last year, Rafiei was arrested by federal agents in 2018 and began cooperating with a corruption investigation in Anaheim, but later stopped cooperating.
At the time, Rafiei denied she was ever arrested.
But in January, Rafiei announced she signed a plea deal with federal prosecutors, pleading guilty to attempted wire fraud and admitting to attempted bribery, but she was not charged with bribery.
Even after news of her cooperation with the FBI became public, Rafiei was a regular presence around Irvine City Hall according to Chi, but he said it was unclear who she was working for.
“When Melahat would inquire, it was typically about City related business and/or programs,” Chi said in a text to Voice of OC in January.
While known for her influence across the county, Rafiei had strong connections in Irvine, serving as a consultant for both Mayor Farrah Khan and Councilwoman Tammy Kim in the past.
In previous interviews, Kim denied any connection with Rafiei since news of her cooperation with the FBI surfaced and Khan has repeatedly not replied to requests for comment on the issue.
According to her plea deal, Rafiei approached two council members in 2018 and brought up the idea of bribing them in exchange for approving a commercial cannabis license for one of her clients.
Rafiei planned to send them the money by entering into legal service agreements with both council members, according to her signed plea deal.
But former Councilwoman Melissa Fox said that while Rafiei approached her about drawing up a legal service agreement, there was no discussion about a bribe.
Despite concerns about the possible fallout of the investigation, a majority of city council members voted against bringing in an outside corruption investigation at their January meeting, citing concerns it could turn into a politicized weapon ahead of the 2024 election.
Meanwhile, investigators in Anaheim’s independent probe into city hall publicly told council members last month that they’ve found potential criminal wrongdoing and one investigator said he expects more FBI indictments soon.
It comes after Anaheim City Hall was rocked by an explosive FBI corruption probe last May, with federal agents – in sworn affidavits – alleging a network of resort interests had outsized influence in city policy making, like the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
The probe’s fallout saw Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu resign last year on the heels of federal agents alleging he tried ramming through the Angel Stadium land sale for $1 million in campaign support from the ball club. Sidhu, who hasn’t been charged with a crime, has denied any wrongdoing.
Most recently, Anaheim investigators also publicly told Anaheim council members that they’ve been speaking with OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer to square away plans to share any potential criminal activity they might find in their probe, which is expected to wrap up by July.
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.