Voters in Santa Ana this month did what they've done for decades — returned Miguel Pulido to office, his 11th consecutive term as mayor of this largely immigrant city.
But this time, the mayor returns with some heavy baggage.
Under investigation by county prosecutors and state officials for his role in a controversial real estate deal, Pulido is the subject of a recently released legal analysis commissioned by the city that has concluded that he likely violated state law.
The probes by the Orange County district attorney and the state's Fair Political Practices Commission are focused on the mayor's relationship with the owner of an auto parts shop and a 2010 real estate deal that earned Pulido a $197,000 profit.
The analysis by Best Best & Krieger, a law firm specializing in municipal law, concluded that Pulido covered up the real estate transaction and later voted to award an exclusive no-bid $1.35-million contract to the auto parts dealer.
Pulido did not return requests for comment on the investigations.
But as the mayor awaits the outcome, his power base in the city of 325,000 has eroded. The city's police union, the county's labor federation and the county Democratic party have dropped their support. And voters last year — for the first time — agreed to term limits for the mayor's office.
He is increasingly being marginalized by his City Council colleagues.
The days of Pulido being a "mover and shaker" in city politics are gone, said Councilwoman Michele Martinez.
It all marks a reversal of fortune for Pulido, who was hailed as a political pioneer in 1994 when he became Santa Ana's first Latino mayor, after serving as a councilman for eight years.
Pulido's rise reflected a demographic shift in the county seat of Orange County as an influx of immigrants made Latinos the majority. His blue-collar roots — born in Mexico, raised in a Placentia farmhouse, employed at his family's muffler shops — only boosted his image and prompted speculation that he might be groomed for higher office.
But Pulido stayed in Santa Ana.
The real estate deal has been a source of concern since it was exposed by the Voice of OC, a nonprofit investigative news agency. Pulido's council colleagues asked the city attorney to investigate and then threatened to make the findings public if the district attorney didn't quickly file charges.
The council released the 28-page investigation in late October, along with hundreds of pages of supporting documents.
Pulido has declined to discuss the real estate deal or the investigations.
But Rupen James Akoubian, president of the NAPA auto parts store, denied any impropriety and said the vacant lot in downtown Santa Ana he bought from the mayor's family was so valuable to him he would have paid double for the land.
"There were no favors given or taken," Akoubian said.
In the 2010 real estate transaction, Pulido and his family members swapped the downtown vacant lot for a home Akoubian owned in Westminster. According to county records, both properties were valued at $200,000. But an appraisal several months later put the value of the Westminster home at $430,000.
According to the legal document, the title to the Westminster home was held at various times in the names of several Pulido family members but ultimately was transferred to the mayor, who sold the home in 2012 for $397,000 — making a $197,000 profit.
Between the time of the property swap and the Pulidos' decision to sell the Westminster home, the mayor voted in favor of giving the auto parts dealer an exclusive contact to provide parts for the city's entire fleet of vehicles. The three-year deal was worth $1.35 million.
Pulido, the legal analysis said, failed to disclose the real estate transaction before the vote and didn't list it on the Statement of Economic Interests that elected politicians are legally required to file. He amended the economic statement in late 2013 after the land swap was revealed.
The legal report concludes that Pulido violated the Political Reform Act by voting in favor of the auto parts contract after making the real estate deal and failed in his duty to disqualify himself. The report repeatedly refers to his actions as a "cover up."
The tipping point for Pulido may be whether prosecutors find that his actions were "willful," which could elevate the case to a felony.
If convicted, Pulido could face prison time and would be barred from ever holding public office again.
Susan Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County district attorney, said the Pulido investigation is ongoing and dismissed concerns that the statute of limitations would run out before they could file charges.
The statute of limitations on a possible conflict-of-interest charge expires Jan. 4.
"Why don't we worry about that on Jan. 3?" Schroeder said when asked about the deadline. "We will finish our review in a timely way; we're not delaying it."