Santa Ana's longtime mayor is under investigation for his relationship with an auto parts business owner, to whom the mayor sold a piece of downtown property and then voted in favor of giving the auto parts store an exclusive city contract.
As part of his real estate transaction, Mayor Miguel Pulido also purchased a Westminster home from the auto parts business owner for about $230,000 below fair market value, according to property records.
Pulido later sold the home for a $197,000 profit.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission notified Pulido last week that it had opened a conflict-of-interest investigation into the matter. The commission does not conduct criminal probes, and its findings typically result in administrative rulings or fines. Others agencies, though, can conduct parallel criminal investigations.
Pulido and several family members entered into the real estate deal with the owner of Napa Orange County Auto Parts in 2010, swapping a piece of downtown property for the home in Westminster. The nonprofit news agency Voice of OC first reported the transaction.
Real estate records show that both pieces of property were valued at $200,000. But after the sale was recorded, the Orange County assessor's office determined that the Westminster home was sold for far below fair market value and appraised it at $430,000.
The downtown property, which was being used as a parking lot, was next to the auto parts store.
About 15 months later, Pulido and his council colleagues voted to make the Orange County Auto Parts the city's sole provider for Santa Ana's fleet of 753 vehicles. The three-year contract was valued at $1.35 million, and council records show that the deal was touted as a way for the city to streamline deliveries and reduce costs.
The agreement can be extended for as many as three successive one-year terms.
Pulido, who has been mayor of Orange County's second-largest city for two decades, did not disclose that he and his family had made the real estate deal with Rupen James Akoubian, the owner of the auto parts business.
Less than a year after voting to give Akoubian the exclusive contract, Pulido sold the home in August 2012 for $397,000, turning a $197,000 profit.
The mayor did not include the Westminster home in his statements of economic interests for 2010, 2011 and 2012, as required by law. He submitted amendments to his filings late last year after the real estate deal was first disclosed by the media.
Pulido did not return repeated calls for comment.
Akoubian said the property swap was unrelated to the contract the company was later awarded.
"That's a joke," Akoubian said. "There were no favors given or taken."
Akoubian said he never dealt directly with Pulido but worked through the mayor's father, Miguel Pulido Sr. Acquiring the downtown property, he said, was crucial to his business.
"I would have given two homes for that property," Akoubian said.
When reports of the real estate deal first surfaced, Santa Ana City Atty. Sonia Carvalho announced that she would look into it and issue a report. When asked recently about its status, Carvalho said the case had been forwarded to the "appropriate authorities" but declined to say who.
A spokesperson for the Fair Political Practices Commission said the panel had launched the investigation on its own, not in response to an outside complaint.
The letter to Pulido said the agency is looking into possible conflicts of interest, failure to report real property and violations of the state's limit on gifts.
Pulido, who got his start in politics after he and his family waged a long battle against a city effort to condemn his father's auto shop, was elected to the City Council in 1986 and has been mayor since 1994.
In 1989, the fight with Santa Ana resulted in the family receiving the downtown property as part of a settlement. The property was, and remains, a parking lot.
Pulido's influence on the council has waned in recent years, and he frequently votes with the minority. He has also lost political support in Santa Ana, with the county's Democratic Party, the city's police union and the county's labor federation all deserting him in the last election. Still, he handily won reelection.