An influential consultant in Long Beach politics has been revealed as one of the key players in a federal political corruption investigation in the city of Anaheim, a disclosure that set off a scramble among local officeholders to distance themselves from her, and, in one case, prompted her firing from a leading mayoral campaign.

The client roster at Melahat Rafiei’s Long Beach-based Progressive Solutions Consulting reads like a who’s who of city politics, filled with Long Beach officials, school board trustees and two-thirds of the city’s nine current council members.

In the last City Council election, for instance, she worked on the campaign of former Long Beach police officer Cindy Allen, whom she would help steer to victory. Rafiei was the one to announce Allen’s candidacy on Oct. 14, 2019. Two weeks later—apparently unbeknownst to Allen—Rafiei was in FBI custody on suspicion of trying to bribe two Irvine City Council members, according to newly released court documents.

That explosive revelation would remain secret until last week, when the court filings from federal agents gave a glimpse into an expansive corruption investigation that centered in Anaheim—already prompting the mayor’s resignation and charges against the former Chamber of Commerce CEO—but has reached into political circles across Southern California.

A photo of Melahat Rafiei from her campaign website for California Democratic Party secretary.

Rafiei’s influence was widespread. When she ran for California Democratic Party secretary, a sweeping variety of local Democrats endorsed her, including congressional Rep. Alan Lowenthal, state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, Mayor Robert Garcia, Councilmembers Rex Richardson, Suzie Price, Al Austin and Mary Zendejas and Long Beach Unified Trustee Megan Kerr. A huge portion of these Long Beach officials had employed or currently employ Rafiei’s Progressive Consulting Services for their campaigns.

Rafiei, who had held positions with both the state and national Democratic Party, resigned both jobs Sunday night, saying recent media coverage of her 2019 arrest and subsequent work as a cooperating witness for the FBI was proving too distracting.

When contacted by the Long Beach Post, local city leaders who had hired Rafiei for work on their campaigns said they were unaware of her 2019 arrest, learning of it only from recent media reports:

  • Councilmember Suzie Price, whose current mayoral campaign had employed Rafiei for political consulting services, said she terminated her contracts with Rafiei’s company “as soon as the articles came out last week.”“I will no longer be using (Progressive Solutions Consulting) for fundraising services,” Price wrote in a text message. Campaign finance records show Price’s mayoral campaign paid Progressive Solutions more than $51,000 in 2022 for her mayoral campaign. The records show Left Hook, which is running her campaign, paid Progressive Solutions more than $17,000 of that, and that Price’s campaign still owes Rafiei a little more than $18,000. Records show Prices’s earlier 2022 City Council campaign paid Progressive Solutions more than $14,900 in 2021.
  • Although Allen used Progressive Solutions Consulting services for her City Council campaign, Allen’s chief of staff, Connor Lock, said Allen was not aware of Rafiei’s 2019 arrest.
  • Campaign finance records show Councilmember Roberto Uranga’s City Council campaign paid Progressive Consulting nearly $8,000 in 2021, and another $2,600 in the first four months of this year, with an unpaid bill of $1,512.75. “I parted ways with Progressive Solutions Consulting earlier this year and was not aware of any prior arrest or ongoing investigation until the recent information was made public,” Uranga said in a statement.
  • Councilman Rex Richardson in a statement said he has not worked with Rafiei’s firm since July 2019. He also said he was unaware of any of her alleged illegal activity in Orange County. “She was no longer aligned with our goals and I felt it was time to move on,” Richardson said. Richardson’s 2018 City Council campaign paid Progressive Solutions about $6,000, campaign finance records show.
  • Campaign finance records show state Sen. Lena Gonzalez’s 2018 City Council campaign paid Progressive Solutions nearly $3,000, and her 2020 state Senate campaign also paid the firm more than $8,400 in 2021. Gonzalez in a statement said she was “deeply disappointed” to learn of Rafiei’s alleged connection to public corruption in Orange County. “As a former client, I was shocked to learn late last week of her 2019 arrest, related to these very serious allegations,” she said. “I had no prior knowledge of these issues and I am extremely troubled by the outright lack of consideration for so many, who entrusted her to lead with integrity. Public corruption is a blatant breach of public trust and every elected leader, including myself, must do everything in their power to combat and prevent it in their communities.”
  • City Prosecutor Doug Haubert, who is employing Rafiei’s Progressive Solutions firm for his reelection bid, could not be reached for comment. Campaign finance records show Haubert’s reelection campaign has paid Progressive Solutions more than $13,000 since mid-2021 and owes the firm a little over $6,000.
  • Long Beach Unified Trustee Megan Kerr’s current City Council campaign has also employed Progressive Consulting. Campaign finance records show Kerr’s campaign has so far paid Rafiei’s firm $7,300 and has an unpaid bill of $1,454. Kerr said in a text message that she “terminated my contact with PSC Campaigns last week when I read the news reports” and paid the $1,454 bill.
  • Councilmember Suely Saro, Councilmember Mary Zendejas and City Council candidate Joni Ricks-Oddie have also employed Progressive Solutions Consulting, campaign finance records show.

Rafiei could not be reached for comment for this story. In a statement on Twitter Sunday announcing her resignation from the positions she held with the national and state Democratic Party, Rafiei said she “never attempted to improperly influence any elected official” and was, in fact, working “to root out corruption.”

In an affidavit focused on accusations of corruption in Anaheim, FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins detailed Rafiei’s arrest nearly three years ago and her subsequent work as a cooperating witness in the bureau’s investigation.

He writes that federal agents arrested Rafiei on Oct. 28, 2019, on charges that included “theft or bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds,” according to Adkins’ affidavit. Rafiei, though not named in the affidavit, admitted to Voice of OC to being the “Cooperating Witness 1” mentioned in the affidavit.

According to Adkins’ affidavit, Rafiei allegedly plotted to bribe two elected Irvine City Council members in exchange for passing favorable cannabis laws in the city for one of her clients.

She began cooperating with special agents in an investigation into public corruption in the city of Anaheim following her arrest, and prosecutors dropped the charges against her but left open the possibility of refiling them, according to the affidavit.

But Adkins also wrote in the affidavit that he believed Rafiei “lied to FBI” special agents on the day of her arrest and “has omitted material facts to investigators throughout” her cooperation with the FBI, including additional possible times where she “has offered to pay bribes to elected public officials.”

The federal public corruption probe has rocked the city of Anaheim and stalled the sale of Angel Stadium following allegations that Mayor Harry Sidhu was leveraging the deal to secure campaign contributions.

Sidhu resigned on Monday “to continue to act in the best interests of Anaheim and allow this great City to move forward without distraction,” according to a statement from his attorney in the L.A. Times.

Last week, former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament was charged with making false statements to a financial institution for allegedly lying to a mortgage lender about his assets while seeking a loan for a $1.5 million home in Big Bear City.

Federal investigators alleged that Ament and a political consultant ran a “cabal” that influenced business and politics in Anaheim behind closed doors.

Among the allegations, Ament is accused of diverting funds intended for the Chamber into his own personal bank account and defrauding a cannabis company that had retained Rafiei to help with favorable cannabis laws in the city.

The Orange County Register identified the cannabis company Rafiei represented as From the Earth, whose CEO, Dan Zaharoni, also had ties to Long Beach.

Zaharoni was chief development officer for Urban Commons, which operated the Queen Mary before descending into bankruptcy amid accusations of fraud and mismanagement. Zaharoni also paid then-Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce tens of thousands of dollars through From the Earth and other cannabis-related companies he controlled, something investigators said was a conflict of interest.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect Councilwoman Suzie Price’s 2021 and 2022 payments to Progressive Solutions Consulting and that Connor Lock is Councilwoman Cindy Allen’s chief of staff. 

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Anthony Pignataro is an investigative reporter and editor for the Long Beach Post. He has close to three decades of experience in journalism leading numerous investigations and long-form journalism projects for the OC Weekly and other publications. He joined the Post in May 2021.