SANTA ANA, California – The former executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County has agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge for attempting to defraud one of her political consultancy firm’s clients. She further admitted in court documents that she agreed to bribe two members of the Irvine City Council – both on cannabis-related matters.
Melahat Rafiei, 45, of Anaheim, agreed to plead guilty to one count of attempted wire fraud. She is expected to make her initial appearance in United States District Court in Santa Ana on February 6.
Rafiei is the principal and founder of Progressive Solutions Consulting, a Long Beach-based political consulting firm. Rafiei was a longtime leader in Orange County’s Democratic Party and formerly served as secretary of the California Democratic Party and state representative to the Democratic National Committee.
According to her plea agreement, from April to June 2018, Rafiei agreed to give at least $225,000 in bribes to Irvine City Councilmembers in exchange for their introducing and passing a city ordinance that would allow Rafiei’s clients to open a retail cannabis store in Irvine.
In April 2018, Rafiei presented a business opportunity to an individual who was then employed in the medical cannabis industry and offered to introduce the individual to an Irvine politician, identified in court documents as “Elected Official 1.”
The next month, Rafiei met with Elected Official 1 to discuss introducing an ordinance in Irvine that would legalize retail medical cannabis and ultimately benefit the individual’s business. At this meeting, Rafiei and Elected Official 1 told the individual and his business partner that they planned to use a separate member of the Irvine City Council – identified in court documents as “Elected Official 2” – to introduce the ordinance.
Following this meeting, still in May 2018, Rafiei asked the individual’s business partner to pay her between $350,000 and $400,000 in exchange for getting the cannabis ordinance introduced.
To avoid detection and mask the bribe payments to the Irvine elected officials, Rafiei planned to enter into legal retainer agreements with them. In June 2018, Rafiei caused a contract to be drafted between herself and Elected Official 2, the terms of which included a $25,000 retainer for “legal services.” Later, Rafiei explained to the individual’s business partner that Elected Official 2 had asked for approximately $25,000 and that Elected Official 1 had asked for $200,000.
Rafiei then instructed the business partner that the bribe payments would be disguised as attorney fees for legal services rendered to her various public affairs and campaign management companies. The payments had to be “maneuvered” in this way, she said, to circumvent the elected officials’ disclosure requirements.
Attempted Wire Fraud
In September and October of 2019, Rafiei falsely represented to a commercial cannabis company owner that, in exchange for a payment of at least $300,000, she would work to pass a cannabis-related ordinance in Anaheim that would benefit and be specifically tailored for the victim’s business. However, Rafiei already had been working on such an ordinance for other paying clients.
Rafiei then falsely represented to the victim that she would keep only $10,000 of the payment in exchange for her purported work. In fact, Rafiei intended to keep $100,000 of the payment.
Rafiei also falsely represented to the victim that $200,000 of the $300,000 would go to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, when in fact, she intended to split the $200,000 equally between herself and an associate of hers who was not affiliated with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. She instructed the victim to pay the $300,000 to various entities whose accounts she controlled.
Once Rafiei enters her guilty plea, she will face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
The FBI investigated this matter.
Assistant United States Attorneys Daniel S. Lim and Melissa S. Rabbani of the Santa Ana Branch Office are prosecuting this case.