In a 3-2 vote on Tuesday, Jan. 24, the Irvine City Council opted to hold off on an internal investigation regarding Melahat Rafiei – a former advisor to Mayor Farrah Khan — and her connections to Irvine City Hall.
Rafiei, who was also a consultant to Vice Mayor Tammy Kim, pleaded guilty to attempted wire fraud for allegedly bribing former members of the Irvine City Council in 2018.
While the Council ultimately voted to not pursue an investigation in the immediate future, it will wait for more information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The FBI plea deal identifies Rafiei’s attempt to solicit favorable votes for cannabis regulation in Irvine in exchange for $225,000 to two members of the 2018 Council. The FBI plea agreement does not identify the City Council members.
At a Jan. 24 special City Council meeting, Irvine Council Member Dr. Kathleen Treseder suggested that Irvine perform its own investigation into how far Rafiei’s conduct and influence merged into City Hall, as well as inside the Orange County Power Authority.
Considering the implications of this plea agreement, Treseder said that this case sets an unfortunate precedent in Irvine, in that it is unclear how frequently vote purchasing occurred in Irvine.
“I want to look into these other cannabis items related to Melahat and other people that may have corrupted – and if so, we could go back and potentially undo them,” Treseder explained. “It’s entirely possible that every resident in the city could not have wanted a particular ordinance passed, but yet it still was passed because the votes were bought.”
Treseder said an investigation would help exonerate the innocent parties, while working to identify the former council members in question.
“It came out in the news that two of our former council members had been bribed in exchange for votes – that should be a concern for everybody in city management and it should also be a concern for residents of the city,” Treseder said “It’s impossible for us to govern fairly if our votes are up for the highest bidder.”
Treseder’s calls for an investigation were seconded by Kim. Kim also disclosed that she employed Rafiei as a political consultant during her 2020 campaign, but quickly cut ties after the news about the FBI investigation surfaced.
While echoing Treseder’s call for transparency, Kim added that Rafiei’s interaction with staff at City Hall is of particular interest, considering she is no longer employed by Kim or Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan.
“What I’m actually more concerned with is the regular presence at City Hall after May, and I think we need to look over what the relationship is or was – not about 2018, but why she had any engagement with current staff,” she said.
Khan said she is unaware of Rafiei’s current dealings with staff, adding that she cut ties with her former campaign manager last year. Yet, Khan voted against an investigation, pointing to a previous investigation against Council Member Agran.
“If she has had communication with staff, it’s outside my work here,” she said. “I also want to be very clear about the whole idea of investigation – as some of you mentioned that we have something like this happen before. It was targeted at Council Member Agran – we wasted a lot of money, we wasted a lot of time. They tried to diminish his reputation. Yet, here he is again, top vote-getter in the last election.”
Agran, who voted against an internal investigation, was involved in a 2014 investigation for mismanagement of more than $30 million of Great Park funds. Agran was eventually cleared of charges.
In fact, in 2020, Hagen, Streiff, Newton & Oshiro (HSNO), the firm hired to investigate Agran, was forced to surrender its accounting licenses after it was discovered the auditors lied to the Irvine City Council about Argan’s case.
Speaking to Irvine Weekly by phone, Agran said he supports a hands off approach to the investigation in Irvine. For now, Agran is not willing to dive into an internal investigation, but willing to cooperate with the FBI.
“If there were no investigation already underway by the FBI — I’m assuming throughout Orange County — I might think a little differently about it,” he said. “Highly inappropriate at this time, might there be a role for the city later a look internally, yeah, but not now. The FBI is in the middle of a continuing public corruption investigation – let them do their work.”
Council Member Mike Carroll, the third and deciding vote against an investigation, said he was unclear on the terms of Treseder’s proposed investigation, and was unsure if the council would have authority to bring forward legal action.
“Can you go arrest somebody?” Carroll asked hypothetically.
Irvine City Attorney Jeff Melching explained that the Council does have the power to issue subpoenas and compel testimony.
“If you have witnesses, whether they’re inside the city or outside the city, you have the ability through the subpoena process to compel testimony under oath,” Melching explained. “If those witnesses refuse to provide testimony under oath you have the ability to go to an Orange County Superior Court judge and compel that testimony.”
Yet, from Carroll’s perspective, the aspect of an internal investigation involving an already existing FBI investigation would invite distraction.
“I wonder if the better approach for the City Council – I will be a little selfish – we have a lot of stuff going on here. We have a multi-multi-many-many-many million dollar massive development project that no other city has, and if each of us doesn’t spend all our time committing to public service on that Great Park, it’s not going to go off the way we need it to,” Carroll said.
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