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Real estate deals of Santa Ana mayor probed

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The mayor of Santa Ana’s vote in favor of offering a local business an exclusive city contract after swapping a piece of property with the owner is troubling, said a UC San Diego professor.

"It does raise the question about whether there was a quid pro quo," said political science professor Steven Erie. "It makes you wonder whether the swap predisposed or set him up to support the later vote."

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 at $430,000.

The downtown property, which was being used as a parking lot, was located next to the auto parts store.

About 15 months later, Pulido and his council colleagues voted to make 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.

Before the December 2012 vote that made Napa Orange County Auto Parts the city’s sole vendor, Santa Ana contracted with more than 80 businesses, said Jose Gonzalez, spokesman for the city.

The contract was competitively bid out through the National Joint Powers Alliance’s contract with Genuine Auto Parts, Gonzalez said. The alliance is a municipal contracting group that bids out contracts on behalf of government and educational member agencies.

The mayor did not include the Westminster home in his statements of economic interests for 2010, 2011 and 2012, as required by law for Santa Ana or the Orange County Transportation Authority, where he’s on the board of directors.

He submitted amendments to his filings late last year after the real estate deal was first disclosed by the media.

Pulido’s failure to report the property are disturbing, Erie of UC San Diego said, but it’s not enough to prove there was a conflict of interest. Investigators would need to prove that he used his influence to persuade  the Santa Ana City Council to award the contract to NAPA Orange County Auto Parts.

“So far the burden hasn’t been met, but it’s troubling,” Erie said.

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Times staff writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.

adolfo.flores@latimes.com

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