New transparency measures could be coming to Irvine City Hall as the city keeps being faced with questions over how much control lobbyists have at city hall.
It’s a hard question Anaheim City Council members are soon expected to ask themselves after the city’s former mayor agreed to plead guilty to federal corruption charges – and after a scathing 353-page independent investigation report detailed outsized influence on city policy making by lobbyists and Disneyland resort interests.
The revelations in Anaheim are spurring Irvine Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder to push for an Ethics Committee and tighten up rules around how much lobbyists are required to disclose, and is asking her council colleagues to back the move at the council’s Tuesday meeting.
The proposal would also make violations of the city’s lobbying rules a misdemeanor, and require all lobbying disclosures be signed under penalty of perjury.
The request comes after Melahat Rafiei, Mayor Farrah Khan’s former chief consultant and a past head of the local Democratic Party, pleaded guilty to attempted wire fraud and admitted plans to try and bribe Irvine city council members in 2018 to pass a commercial cannabis policy.
Her guilty plea came as FBI investigators announced a sprawling corruption investigation into Anaheim that saw former Mayor Harry Sidhu sign a guilty plea admitting to corruption charges along with former Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament pleading guilty to fraud.
Anaheim City Council commissioned their own investigation into city corruption led by the JL Group, which found loose lobbying regulations and tight relationships between council members and city executives with lobbyists as one of the city’s biggest problems.
“We observed that there has been a lack of oversight and meaningful enforcement concerning lobbying in the City,” investigators wrote.
But Irvine’s City Council members voted against investigating Rafiei’s work and decided to wait on the FBI in January, saying there was too great a risk the investigation would become a politicized attack on Khan.
While Khan claimed to have cut ties with Rafiei after news of her work with the FBI became public, public records obtained by Voice of OC show that Rafiei was still regularly speaking with city staff and claiming it was on Khan’s behalf months after that.
Rafiei never filed any paperwork to disclose she was lobbying on behalf of any cannabis companies.
More questions were raised on the city’s lobbying rules when Patrick Strader, a prominent Irvine lobbyist, represented Live Nation during their attempts to set up an amphitheater in Irvine, but never acknowledged the relationship in his disclosures.
Strader has said he didn’t violate the city’s rules because he wasn’t being paid by the company for his time.
In a memo to her council colleagues, Treseder said Anaheim’s corruption investigation spurred her to discuss tightening up the city’s lobbying rules after Irvine was mentioned 11 times in connection with Rafiei in Anaheim’s investigative report.
“Based on the recommendations presented in the Anaheim report, I request that the Irvine City Council consider adding safeguards to increase transparency and undue political influence here in Irvine,” Treseder wrote.
In Anaheim, city officials largely rely on the lobbyist themselves to self-report their activity.
But that might soon change in the fallout of the corruption controversy as Anaheim City Council members are set to discuss reforming its lobbyist rules at their public Tuesday meeting.
Now, calls for reform in Irvine are being spearheaded by Treseder.
Her first request is for the city to create an Ethics Committee, which would “administer City and State laws relating to campaign financing, contracts, governmental ethics, and lobbying,” along with discussing and disclosing anyone in the city registered as a lobbyist.
Treseder also listed eight other possible changes to the city’s lobbying rules and disclosure, including making any communications between lobbyists and city staff or the council a public record and strengthening whistleblower protections for anyone disclosing lobbying violations.
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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