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Ex-Orange County Democratic Party leader pleads guilty in bribery scheme

The longtime local leader admitted she tried to bribe two Irvine City Council members to help her clients open a cannabis store in the city.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The former executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County, California, pleaded guilty Friday to attempted wire fraud as part of a broader bribery investigation.

Melahat Rafiei, 45, admitted that in 2018 she offered to help two clients of her consulting business, who were in the medical marijuana industry, to bribe two members of the Irvine City Council so that they would introduce and vote for an ordinance allowing her clients to open a retail cannabis store in the Southern California city.

In a separate scheme, she admitted that in 2019 she asked one of the same clients for $300,000 to help pass a cannabis-related ordinance in Anaheim even though she was already getting paid by other clients to do this. She also admitted that she lied to this client that she'd only take $10,000 of the $300,000 as her payment. She in fact intended to keep $100,000 of the money.

"I understand, your honor," a tearful Rafiei told U.S. District Judge Fernando Aenlle-Rocha when asked whether she understood the civic rights she was giving up, including the right to hold office, by pleading guilty to a felony.

Aennle-Rocha set a sentencing date for Oct. 13.

Rafiei was a longtime leader in Orange County’s Democratic Party and has served as secretary of the California Democratic Party and as state representative to the Democratic National Committee. She ran a Long Beach political consulting firm, Progressive Solutions Consulting, during the time she got involved in the bribery scheme.

According to her plea agreement, Rafiei agreed to pay at least $225,000 in bribes to the two unidentified Irvine City Council members. The payments were to be disguised as attorneys fees she was paying them for legal services they provided for her various public affairs and campaign management companies to circumvent the elected officials’ disclosure requirements. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Sedrish Rabbani declined to comment after Friday's hearing on whether the U.S. was bringing any charges against the Irvine politicians. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in LA clarified that the investigation was ongoing.

In the 2019 scheme, she lied to her client that $200,000 of the $300,000 payment would go to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. She admitted that she intended to split the $200,000 with an associate of hers who was not affiliated with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. She instructed the client to pay the $300,000 to various entities whose accounts she controlled. 

Unbeknownst to Rafiei, the two medical marijuana entrepreneurs she was dealing with turned out to be FBI informants.

She faces a maximum of 20 years in prison for the attempted wire fraud conviction but the actual sentence will likely be a lot less. The prosecution agreed as part of her plea deal that they'd recommend a sentence at the low end of the guidelines, which could add up to around 21 months.

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Categories / Courts, Criminal, Government, Politics, Regional

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