The political power broker who worked for numerous Long Beach elected officials and was central to uncovering Anaheim’s City Hall scandal last year has admitted she agreed to pay bribes to two Irvine City Council members and will plead guilty to a felony charge of attempting to defraud one of her political clients in Anaheim, authorities revealed Thursday.
Melahat Rafiei, who worked on Democratic political campaigns in Long Beach and Orange County and also had a cannabis consulting business, has agreed to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Her first appearance in federal court in Santa Ana is scheduled Feb. 6.
In a statement released to the media, Rafiei said it was a “difficult decision” to accept a plea deal, but she did so in consideration of the “care and custody” of her son.
“I know this option will bring certainty, closure and a path forward,” her statement said. “No promises have been made with respect to what penalty will be imposed. It may well include prison time. My hope is that the Judge will take all factors into consideration.”
In the plea agreement, Rafiei acknowledged that between April and June of 2018, she “agreed to give at least $225,000 in bribes to Irvine City Council members in exchange for their introducing and passing a city ordinance that would allow Rafiei’s clients to open a retail cannabis store in Irvine,” a news release said. (The council members are not named in the release or court documents related to Rafiei’s plea.)
After a meeting between Rafiei, someone in the medical cannabis industry and an Irvine council member, she asked the businessperson’s partner “to pay her between $350,000 and $400,000 in exchange for getting the cannabis ordinance introduced,” according to the release. She then attempted to draft legal retainer agreements as a way to hide payments promised to the council members.
However, the cannabis businessperson and their partner were giving information to the FBI, according to a copy of the plea agreement provided by the U.S. Attorney’s office.
The attempted wire fraud took place in 2019, according to prosecutors. In September and October, Rafiei sought a payment of at least $300,000 to get a cannabis ordinance passed in Anaheim that would favor a specific cannabis business, and she lied about where the money would go, the plea agreement stated. She also requested that the business pay her with checks that would be deposited into accounts she controlled, from which she would transmit some of the money to others.
No Long Beach officials have been implicated in the case, but Rafiei’s Long Beach-based Progressive Solutions Consulting previously worked on City Council campaigns for Cindy Allen and Roberto Uranga, now-State Sen. Lena Gonzalez, now-Mayor Rex Richardson, former Councilmember Suzie Price’s mayoral campaign, City Prosecutor Doug Haubert’s reelection bid and several other local officials.
When it came to light last year that Rafiei was under FBI investigation, Long Beach officials who had been her clients either cut ties with her or said they had already done so earlier.
In her statement, Rafiei – a former executive director of the Orange County Democratic Party who also ran for a position in state party leadership – said she hadn’t intended to harm anyone and had sought to support democracy.
“While all I have done to this point may be overshadowed by this unfortunate chapter, I remain proud of my work on behalf of candidates and institutions whose values I share,” she wrote.
Rafiei’s involvement in the investigation became public when she was revealed in court documents as a key cooperating witness in the alleged corruption scandal at Anaheim City Hall that centered around former Mayor Harry Sidhu and the city’s deal to sell Angel Stadium.
According to FBI affidavits filed in court, Sidhu allegedly sought to provide city information to Angels Baseball representatives to help them in negotiations with the city, and in return he hoped to get $1 million in support for his 2022 reelection campaign.
Sidhu stepped down as mayor as a result of the revelations, but he has not been charged with a crime and through his attorney has denied any wrongdoing. Former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament, a close advisor to Sidhu, pleaded guilty in July 2022 to several counts of fraud and financial charges; he has not yet been sentenced.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more information.
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