Unmasking Soria: The Unethical Purchase of COVID Masks at City Hall
As an elected official serving the public, it’s essential that everything you do is done with integrity and transparency, that your decisions and votes protect the taxpayer, and that any taxpayer money spent is done so appropriately.
I’ve now served with Councilmember Esmeralda Soria for five years and her actions along with those of several other councilmembers have often not met these important standards and I’ve publicly exposed these instances. Yet many in the media continue to ignore these issues.
This is the second op-ed I’ve written addressing Soria and her blatant ethical challenges, In the first op-ed, I addressed the numerous potential conflicts and ethical issues related to Soria and Granite Park, which is operated by her fiancée, Terance Frazier (they are not officially married despite a luxurious wedding ceremony in Mexico in November 2021, which raised many other issues addressed by the city attorney).
Why Did Soria, Arias, and Others Favor One Company for Masks?
This time, I am addressing additional ethical issues related to Soria and her political ally, Councilmember Miguel Arias.
Throughout the pandemic, Soria and Arias fought relentlessly to shut down businesses and throw people out of work yet there was one business they supported in an amazing and eyebrow-raising way. Enter MPG Global LLC, a new company from Los Angeles that briefly opened a business in Fresno to sell these councilmembers (PPE) masks. Soria and Arias combined spent hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing masks from this specific company and in so doing violated the city’s Municipal Code and Charter.
In sharp contrast, during the pandemic, 13 different City of Fresno departments also purchased masks but did so from approximately 20 different vendors. And, none of the departments bought masks from MPG Global LLC. Not one. Yet Soria and Arias, along with two other councilmembers, only purchased masks from this one specific vendor. Why?
Outlined below are some of the ethical issues, in historical context, related to what Soria and Arias did and the questions the media refuse to ask Soria or investigate despite the fact that she is now a candidate for the Assembly:
- On March 26, 2020, Michael Melikian, CEO of MPG Global LLC, filed his company with the State of California using a Los Angeles address. On April 16, 2020, MPG Global LLC filed another California form now showing an address in Fresno (attachment 1).
- On May 12, 2020, MPG Global LLC submitted a Business License application with the City of Fresno stating it opened the business on March 26, 2020.
- On May 7, 2020, Esmeralda Soria made her first of three mask purchases from MPG Global LLC totaling $66,882.63 (attachment 2). Her last purchase was on November 20, 2020, when she and Miguel Arias split a $72,883.13 purchase from MPG Global LLC (attachment 3).
- Miguel Arias made six different purchases from MPG Global LLC, totaling $160,125.56. His purchases began six days after Soria’s began and ended on March 5, 2021 (attachment 2). It’s noteworthy that three months after Arias’ last purchase, MPG Global LLC closed its Business License account with the City of Fresno.
- In sharp contrast, 13 different City of Fresno departments purchased masks from approximately 20 different vendors and none of them used MPG Global LLC (attachment 4). Soria and Arias purchased a total of $227,008.19 in masks from MPG Global LLC, which is nearly 31% of the total amount spent by the entire City of Fresno.
- Councilmember Nelson Esparza and the former Councilmember from District 4 each also made one purchase of masks from MPG Global LLC for $33,040.35 and $23,581.74, respectively. With their purchases, MPG Global LLC received nearly 39% of all City of Fresno taxpayer money spent on masks.
- Soria and Arias both violated Fresno Municipal Code 4-107 and Resolution 2017-67, which clearly stipulate that a councilmember cannot enter into an individual contract that exceeds a total of $50,000. Both spent significantly more than $50,000 and should have brought their purchases before the City Council which they never did. The City Charter also requires any purchase of more than $149,000 be put out to bid for the public. Having spent a total of $160,125.56, Arias violated the Charter (attachment 5).
- When Arias was asked why he selected MPG Global LLC to purchase masks, he stated that Fresno County had also purchased masks from that company. That is completely false. The county never purchased any masks from this company.
- Soria has refused to answer questions from real journalists that want to ask her tough questions regarding these and other ethical issues yet she wants to be an Assembly Member.
Questions That Need to Be Asked and Answered
Here are the specific questions and answers that are needed regarding these mask purchases from MPG Global LLC:
- Why did Soria and Arias specifically spend $227,000 of taxpayer money on only this one company for masks and violate the Fresno Municipal Code and City Charter (in Arias’ case) in order to do it?
- Why did Arias’ office staff contact at least two, if not three, other council offices encouraging them to purchase masks from MPG Global LLC?
- Why did Arias’ staff encourage the CEO of MPG Global LLC, Michael Melikian, to personally call a council office, which he did, to see if they wanted to buy masks from his company, which is highly unusual and inappropriate?
- Does Soria’s fiancée, Terance Frazier, have or ever had in the past a business relationship with Michael Melikian?
- Did Soria or Frazier financially profit in any way from the purchase of these masks from MPG Global LLC?
Fresno County DA Should Investigate Mask Buys
The Fresno Bee and other local media, with the exception of GV Wire, KSEE-24, KMJ 580/105.9, and Power Talk 96.7, have virtually ignored these ethical issues. Hopefully, the media in Merced and Sacramento will ask the questions for which the constituents in Assembly District 27 deserve answers.
I also call on Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, who announced in June of last year that she was investigating Brown Act violations related to Granite Park, to also investigate the ethical issues, and the Municipal Code and Charter violations, related to Soria’s and Arias’ purchase of these masks from MPG Global LLC.
Our community awaits answers.
About the Author
Garry Bredefeld is a Fresno city councilman representing District 6, which encompasses northeast Fresno.