Despite her initial commitment to serve for the rest of the year, South Pasadena City Councilwoman Marina Khubesrian resigned from her post this week, days after admitting she sent a litany of emails using false personas to attack members of the public who have been critical of city actions.
The resignation, which went into effect Tuesday morning, leaves the City Council with a decision to make: whether to appoint someone to finish her term or keep the seat vacant for roughly four months. Khubesrian announced her decision in a statement emailed on Saturday that confirmed a series of recent allegations that the two-term councilwoman had surreptitiously submitted public comments at meetings that excoriated residents for their comments.
“While this happened during a time of great personal stress and when I was facing a serious health issue, there is absolutely no excuse for my conduct,” she wrote in the statement, adding that medication she was taking as well as the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated her anxiety issues. “Frankly, I am extremely remorseful, embarrassed and mortified by my actions.”
The City Council met Wednesday night, after The Review’s press deadline, in a special meeting to address the new vacancy and Khubesrian’s committee assignments.
Khubesrian apologized to the South Pasadena community and her peers on the council for her actions, and pledged to reach out to those targeted in the emails to give personal apologies. She also expressed regret that the situation caused her supporters to defend her reputation “without knowing all the facts.”
Two weeks ago, shortly after a local resident formally filed a complaint with the city and the South Pasadena Police Department, Khubesrian decided against seeking re-election in District 2, but also committed to finishing her second term. Now her would-be opponent, Jack Donovan, apparently will sail uncontested into office via the November election, barring a write-in candidacy. Should the council decide to appoint a placeholder, it would have to open an application process to the public, which could give Donovan a head start to winning the seat.
In her latest statement, Khubesrian acknowledged that the ongoing controversy played a role in this decision, and added that she’d been “burning the candle at both ends.” She said her stress levels had impaired her ability to sleep and also caused her to take political disputes “far too personally.”
“While I believe this conduct was quite out of character for me, I bear ultimate responsibility for ensuring that my personal life comports with the standards expected from a member of the City Council,” she wrote. “I’ve reflected on my wrongful and impulsive acts and take responsibility for what I’ve done.”
Khubesrian said that in May and June, she sent a number of emails for the purposes of submitting public comment using the aliases Mel Trom and Emily Diaz-Vines. The messages were generally supportive of city officials and actions, but at times targeted local resident Chris Bray — with whom Khubesrian had previously sparred — and former Finance Director Josh Betta, who in June submitted an unsolicited report that criticized what was then the city’s proposed budget.
One email sent from the Diaz-Vines account responded to a prior rebuttal from Bray, calling him a “pervert” for asking to meet and further discuss their differences. The Diaz-Vines email described herself as a 17-year-old Latina and South Pasadena resident; the email also labeled Bray as a “white supremacist” for purportedly targeting current Finance Director Karen Aceves and “Diaz-Vines.”
The comment from Diaz-Vines also characterized Betta as disruptive based on media reports on past job exits and accused him of abuse during a marriage that ultimately ended in divorce. Betta has said the accusation is false and vicious.
Betta’s report cast doubt on the legitimacy of the proposed budget prepared by Aceves — who was hired full time this year — based largely on the fact that the city had yet to complete an audit of its 2018-19 fiscal year; the audit remains unfinished. Betta concluded that the numbers required to back up the budget simply weren’t there.
Residents incensed by the report successfully lobbied the City Council to adopt a continuing appropriations resolution, which essentially kicks the budget adoption down the road and forces the city to adhere to its operating budget from the prior year.
“I was also taken aback by harsh criticism of and attacks on hard-working City employees who I thought were doing a good job,” Khubesrian said in her statement.
Betta, in an emailed statement, said Khubesrian had privately apologized to him “and I salute her courage.”
“Ms. Khubesrian would do well for herself, her family and her community in ‘penance,’” Betta added. “I dare say she will find her healing in leading the corrective charge into the dark social media environment and white-hot hostility that has put a human stain on South Pasadena’s public political conduct.”
Bray said that he reached out to Khubesrian after she admitted to sending the emails and that she had replied. He said he “wouldn’t say she personally apologized” yet, but added that “maybe she was working up to it.” Bray also wondered whether she had used the personas to send emails to other council members and said that although “she deserves some degree of kindness” in light of her personal issues, it should not relieve an elected official of accountability.
“I don’t think we have the full picture, yet,” Bray said in an email to The Review. “There may be more messages.”
Although Khubesrian did not address the matter in her statement, Councilman Michael Cacciotti also has reported receiving a harsh email from the Mel Trom alias’ address.
In his ethics complaint filed with the city, Bray said he determined Khubesrian was responsible for those email addresses by initiating the account recovery feature on the email addresses themselves. That procedure indicated that Khubesrian’s personal Gmail account and phone number were linked to the accounts, Bray said. A reporter with the Southern California News Group successfully replicated the procedure, according to a Pasadena Star-News article.
South Pasadena Police Chief Joe Ortiz announced two weeks ago that he forwarded Bray’s complaint to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office’s Public Integrity Division to complete the investigation. A representative of that office did not address Khubesrian’s statement.
“There are no updates,” Greg Risling said this week. “It remains under review.”
Khubesrian also addressed the background to her personal issues she said are the root of her behavior. Since 2018, she said, she has continuously received emails — many of them from anonymous senders — expressing criticism that has escalated in intensity. Her emailed statement last weekend also included a file seeming to compile some of these emails.
One email, sent on Nov. 8, 2019, derided Khubesrian for apparently being included in a reference to “The Squad,” a nickname for four female congresswomen known for their criticism of President Donald Trump as well as for the Democratic Party’s failure to reflect their more left-wing stances.
Other messages seem to be part of a long-term conversation initiated by an anonymous user named Concerned Sopas, likely a short form of “South Pasadena.”
The earliest email included was sent on July 5, 2018, and expressed polite but thorough concern over the conduct of City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe and the qualifications of Aceves (at the time a Finance Department worker who had not yet been elevated to director). Emails sent in the following months become more virulent in their critique of city officials, with one message referring to Aceves as “basically a skilled bull—- artist” and another threatening to hold the City Council accountable for rubber-stamping DeWolfe’s hiring of consultants.
On Aug. 27, 2019, Concerned Sopas apparently told Khubesrian that she was “either too stoned or too stupid to heed all of the red flags concerning the unethical, incompetent, dishonest, con-woman who has been running (ruining) our City” before continuing to berate Khubesrian, who that year served as mayor.
The email service used by Concerned Sopas — mail.com — does not employ authentication measures that ask for a phone number, which is the process by which Bray was able to link Khubesrian to the surreptitious accounts.
The last of these included emails, dated Oct. 25, 2019, ended with a cryptic prediction for Khubesrian.
“Your blind devotion to Stephanie DeWolfe is going to cost you your political career,” Concerned Sopas wrote.