Anaheim led local headlines last year when revelations surfaced of an ongoing FBI corruption probe into city hall alleging resort interests had an outsized influence at city hall.

But a year later, questions remain over whether Irvine leaders participated in similar alleged pay to play schemes. 

Anaheim residents are expecting a report next month with a bit more clarity about what’s been going on at city hall after two separate city councils endorsed a largely independent probe into the issues raised by an FBI affidavit in court last year. 

[Read: What Have Anaheim Investigators Found in The City Hall Corruption Probe?]

While Anaheim’s own ensuing probe has faced hard questions from city leaders on scope, funding and redactions – Irvine leaders skipped any kind of deep look into allegations that were just as serious as those facing Anaheim. 

Melahat Rafiei, former secretary for the California Democratic Party and former head of the county party, pleaded guilty earlier this year to attempted wire fraud and admitted to trying to bribe two former Irvine City Council Members in 2018 for favorable cannabis legislation. 

After the FBI probe surfaced last May and revealed she was arrested and then became a cooperating witness for federal investigators, politicians across the region publicly distanced themselves from Rafiei, also a highly influential Democratic consultant.

At first, Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan defended Rafiei, then publicly distanced herself last year.

A recent Voice of OC investigation found that Rafiei remained a constant presence at city hall after that, regularly speaking with City Manager Oliver Chi and claiming it was on Khan’s behalf until she pleaded guilty this January. 

[Read: Did Irvine’s Mayor Keep Working With Consultant Caught Up in FBI Corruption Probe?]

Both Khan and Alaleh Kamran, Rafiei’s lawyer, did not respond to requests for comment.

Previously, Rafiei’s lawyer Kamran denied that Rafiei continued working for Khan, calling the texts between the city manager and Rafiei that included scheduling discussions and policy as “regular banter.” 

While some residents and city leaders called for a probe in January, the city council majority voted against doing their own investigation into Rafiei’s work at city hall, citing concerns that it would turn into a political witch hunt and insisting the city was better off waiting on the FBI. 

[Read: Irvine Won’t Investigate Attempted Bribery of Councilmembers, Waits on FBI]

Councilmembers Tammy Kim and Kathleen Treseder, who both voted in favor of an investigation, say that it’s an issue they’d like to bring back, but don’t have the support for. 

“I don’t know what specifically we can do since Kathleen and I were outvoted,” Kim said in an interview last week. “There didn’t seem to be an appetite even close to … do anything remotely similar or in the vein of wanting to get to the bottom of this.” 

Treseder agreed, and said Anaheim residents will at least get a look into the alleged corruption at their city hall.  

“The city council has done nothing about this issue,” Treseder said in a Monday interview. “I think Anaheim is coming off a lot more diligent and a lot more committed to transparency on this end.” 

City contracted investigators in Anaheim have publicly told the city council that they’ve found potential criminal wrongdoing and have been talking with Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer about the issue.

[Read: Meet the Investigators Trying to Shine a Light on Corruption at Anaheim City Hall]

Those findings are expected to be publicly released in July.

While the FBI corruption probe saw the resignation of Anaheim’s mayor last year and an independent investigation, Irvine leaders have largely sat on the sidelines – despite a portion of the FBI’s investigation starting in their own city through Rafiei.

Before her arrest, Rafiei was one of the most active political consultants in the county, with a roster of clients that included all three mayors of Orange County’s largest cities, most of the Long Beach City Council and multiple Democrat city council members throughout the county. 

[Read: Democratic Consultant Who Admitted Trying to Bribe Irvine Councilmembers Worked All Over Orange County]

But, according to an FBI affidavit filed in court that largely derailed the rushed sale of Angel Stadium last May,  she only started helping the FBI after she was arrested for attempted bribery, a charge she denied until she signed a plea agreement pleading guilty to attempted wire fraud and admitting the attempted bribery in Jan. 2023. 

[Read: OC Democratic Power Broker Admits To Attempted Bribery of Irvine Councilmembers and Attempted Wire Fraud]

In her signed plea agreement, Rafiei sketched out a plan in 2018 to give at least $225,000 in bribes to two Irvine city council members in exchange for one of her clients being allowed to open a retail cannabis store in the city. 

According to the agreement, the bribes were to be disguised as legal fees, allowing them to circumvent disclosure requirements, but no such retail cannabis policy ever materialized. 

While Irvine officials have largely ignored the FBI probe, Anaheim residents are set to get their first look at the city’s internal investigation in July, after repeated discussions by their city council about limiting the scope of the investigation or cutting off funding. 

City hired investigators Jeff Love and Jeff Johnson – who both have about three decades of experience – have publicly said they have found potential criminal wrongdoing and have talked with OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer about the probe. 

“We have identified certain issues that could – we’re not arbitrators of the law – but could concern criminal violations of the law,” Love publicly told Anaheim officials in February. 

Retired OC Superior Court Judge Clay Smith, hired to oversee the investigation, went into more detail with Voice of OC about what investigators are evaluating in a February interview.

“I’ll just say that we have not been able to fully explain the handling of funds and we’re just looking into that very earnestly. It may turn out that there was no misconduct or it may turnout money was mishandled or misused. We’re just going to have to wait and see,” Smith said.

He would not clarify if he was referring to city money or provide further specifics on the potential criminal violations.

Meanwhile, only one of the two former Irvine council members approached about a bribe in 2018 came forward publicly, and the FBI have said there are no plans to divulge the other names unless they’re criminally charged. 

County supervisor Don Wagner, who was the mayor at the time and one of only three lawyers on the council, said he was never approached by Rafiei.

Former Councilwoman Melissa Fox said that while Rafiei never tried to bribe her, she was approached about doing some legal work for Rafiei’s firm. 

Fox said that the FBI told her Rafiei then used that draft legal agreement to show her clients that she needed money to bribe Fox, though no such bribe ever went further. 

[Read: Former Irvine Councilwoman Says Democratic Consultant Tried Defrauding Her, Not Bribing]

Kamran, Rafiei’s lawyer, declined to speak on the specifics of Fox’s claim at the time.  

“To the extent that Ms Fox is stating any facts that are within her personal knowledge I would defer to her,” Kamran said in a text message to Voice of OC in January. “I would highly caution against the use of any hearsay statements without any corroborating facts or documents.” 

Jeff Lalloway, the only other lawyer at the council at the time, did not return requests for comment from Voice of OC.

The FBI could still be investigating Irvine City Hall, with City Manager Oliver Chi revealing that he was interviewed by investigators in March, but there hasn’t been any other news about the probe since then. 

Hosam Elattar contributed reporting to this story. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at or on Twitter @NBiesiada.


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