After the corruption scandal kicked off in Anaheim last year, residents and activists throughout Orange County began asking some hard questions about the impacts of lobbyists and if they wield outsized influence.

[Read: Is Anaheim a Cue for More Cities to Start Registering Lobbyists?]

It’s a scandal that also touched on Irvine City Hall, where Mayor Farrah Khan’s former consultant Melahat Rafiei pleaded guilty to federal fraud and admitted to attempted bribery in 2018, forcing officials there to rethink their relationship with lobbyists.

Now, new restrictions on lobbyists could be coming to town after city council members unanimously voted to have city staff come back with proposals to strengthen the city’s disclosure rules and their enforcement. 

The proposals come after city council members threw out the idea of an ethics committee and any potential shifts to their campaign finance laws that govern how they all fundraise for their campaigns, and questioned if any changes were really needed. 

Irvine’s discussion started after an independent investigation in Anaheim found extensive problems with lobbyists working with city council members and executives to manipulate public policy and not disclosing it. 

[Read: Anaheim’s Corruption Investigation Highlights How Lobbyists Across OC Slip Past Registration Rules

Anaheim City Council members could also be on a path to tighten lobbying rules after directing staff to come back with overhaul proposals the same night Irvine did.

Anaheim officials are also looking to close a loophole that let employees of companies like Disney avoid registering as lobbyists. 

Irvine Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder asked for city staff to come back with proposals to ensure a similar problem couldn’t happen in Irvine, listing a series of ideas mapped out in both Anaheim’s investigation and her own ideas on how to fix the issue. 

“I don’t have a lot of specifics that I’m really hinging everything on, I want to hear what the staff thinks and what other cities do,” Treseder said at the meeting. “I was looking into our current lobbying ordinance and I found there were some places it could be strengthened.”

Councilmembers Larry Agran and Mike Carroll insisted that Irvine was not the same as Anaheim, and that there was no evidence of misconduct in their own city hall. 

“I do want to be really clear with the public that Irvine is not Anaheim,” Agran said. “There’s not really evidence of criminality relating to our own lobbying provisions here.” 

Yet Melahat Rafiei, who was one of Mayor Farrah Khan’s top aides, was detailed in Anaheim’s independent corruption report, where investigators allege she was working with the embattled Chamber of Commerce to influence favorable cannabis legislation in the city.

She also admitted – in a signed federal plea agreement – to attempting to bribe Irvine city council members in 2018 in order to get cannabis shops licensed. 

Rafiei never disclosed she was working for the cannabis industry in any public disclosures in both Anaheim or Irvine. 

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

There were also questions over whether or not Khan cut ties with Rafiei after she publicly admitted to being under FBI investigation. 

It remains unclear if any FBI investigations are ongoing in Irvine, but in May they interviewed City Manager Oliver Chi. 

[Read: Irvine City Manager Interviewed by FBI in Connection With City Investigation]

Agran, Carroll and Khan all voted against investigating what other work Rafiei had done in the city, raising concerns that it would turn into a “political witch hunt,” in January.  

[Read: Irvine Has Largely Ignored Implications of FBI Corruption Probe Released Last Summer

Khan accused Treseder of “finger pointing,” and said her ideas needed more work before they could really be voted on. 

“You can work on this a little bit more, make it more directed towards Irvine without any assumptions or finger pointing,” Khan said at Tuesday’s meeting. “If you really want to try and make something better.” 

Carroll agreed. 

“This is a rerun of the witch hunt that was tried a few months ago,” Carroll said. “Who knows what these people were doing, but it doesn’t consist of the five of us up here.” 

Treseder and Councilwoman Tammy Kim said without the council’s approval, Tresder couldn’t get the help of city staff to keep developing the rules, a point that was backed up by Chi. 

“Certainly we can do some preliminary work,” Chi said. “But if we’re going to engage in a formal work effort, that’s where we do encourage members of the council to agendize something for council consideration.” 

Agran also questioned how anything in the city would get done if people had to disclose being paid more than $500 to lobby, saying that was too low of a bar, and arguing that the city just needed to enforce the laws they already have for lobbying. 

“That’s going to sweep a whole bunch of people into the lobbying registration,” Agran said. “Almost nothing gets reported in detail, and that’s an enforcement problem.” 

It’s not so much a problem with our provisions,” he continued. “It’s that we’re not enforcing them.” 

Treseder pointed out that was the rule the county government, which has over 70 registered lobbyists, uses for their disclosures, but agreed to look at setting the bar higher. 

Treseder agreed to drop the ideas for an ethics committee and for any campaign finance reform, saying she just wanted city staff to have the opportunity to look at creating some new rules that could prevent a similar situation in Anaheim from coming to Irvine. 

“In terms of Anaheim, correct, we have not had any sort of investigations come out,” Treseder said. “They’ve had a really tough time now that the toothpaste is out of the tube. I think there’s something to be said for setting this up now before we have some serious problems.” 

City staff are set to come back with possible lobbying rules in the next 60 days. 

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


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