Honda Whistleblower Steps Forward, Denies Threats

The source that provided emails for San Jose Inside’s recent stories on pay-to-play coordination between Mike Honda’s office and his re-election campaign has decided to come forward, after new information surfaced about his relationship with former co-workers.

Ruchit Agrawal, 28, joined Honda’s district office in July 2012, shortly after leaving UCLA law school. He worked there for approximately eight months. During that time, Agrawal says, he handled a variety of tasks, including IT. He approached San Jose Inside in August, claiming that Honda’s top staffers pressured him to spend his off-hours volunteering to work on the congressman’s fledgling re-election campaign. It was during this time, he says, he also became uncomfortable with the mixing of official office work and political campaign activities.

In emails Agrawal forwarded to San Jose Inside, which were sent and received in February 2013, Honda’s chief of staff, Jennifer Van der Heide, is shown discussing who to invite to a State Department Roundtable with the congressman’s then-campaign manager, Lamar Heystek. Agrawal was included on these emails. Van der Heide and Heystek openly discussed inviting people who would give money and/or endorsements to their boss. Because it was an official State Department event, these emails appear to violate House rules on using official resources for campaign purposes.

Agrawal told San Jose Inside he resigned a short time after receiving these emails because they made him uncomfortable. He said he cited health concerns in his resignation letter.

The relationship between Agrawal and his former colleagues became more complicated at the end of last year. Agrawal tells San Jose Inside that a former Honda aide, Ashley Roybal-Reid, and her spouse claimed he threatened, over dinner, to kill Van der Heide and her daughter. He denies making the threat.

A police report was taken but no charges were filed, Agrawal tells San Jose Inside, adding that restraining orders were filed against him by the former co-worker, her husband, Van der Heide, Meri Maben, who served as Agrawal’s direct boss during his time in Honda’s office, and another former Honda staffer, Mike Nguyen.

Agrawal tells San Jose Inside that he’s now decided to come forward as the source of the emails, amidst concerns that Honda’s supporters are attempting to discredit his allegations by tarnishing his integrity. “I never made any threats,” he says, suggesting that the congressman’s loyalists retaliated when he surfaced as a potential whistleblower. “We met for dinner and we talked about the ethics concerns I had and how to report that.”

Agrawal tells San Jose Inside that 11 days prior to that dinner, he sent a letter to an employee in the House Ethics Committee. That email focused on staffers being told to carry out Honda’s personal errands, such as setting up his Netflix account and Apple TV. These actions would qualify as a violation of House rules. In that letter, Agrawal says, he did not mention the pay-to-play coordination on the State Department Roundtable between Van der Heide and Heystek.

“The core issue is what happened with the State Department invites and the way they tied it to fundraising,” he says.

San Jose Inside has repeatedly requested interviews with Van der Heide and Maben, but neither have been made available.

In a story published Wednesday by Bay Area News Group, Van der Heide apologized for the emails she sent regarding the State Department event. Honda’s office said that she took a half-day vacation when one of these emails was sent during normal work hours.

“The congressman expects that official staff who want to volunteer on his campaign do so on their own time, and without utilizing the resources of the office," Van der Heide told the newspaper. "In this instance, while I was on my own time and not using official resources, I fell short of the congressman's expectations and the example I try to set for the office. I have apologized to the congressman for my oversight."

UPDATE: According to a story by Bay Area News Group reporter Josh Richman, a San Jose police report says Ruchit Agrawal allegedly threatened to shoot Jennifer Van der Heide, her 10-year-old daughter and Meri Maben during a drunken evening at a former co-worker's home.

Per Richman, the report said that Ashley Roybal and her husband, Dossel Reid, told police that Agrawal tried to recruit the couple to help him expose ethics improprieties in Rep. Mike Honda's office, where Agrawal and Roybal both had previously worked. When the couple refused—Richman reports, citing the police report—Agrawal became angry and talked about wanting to shoot Van der Heide's daughter in the face.

"I am going to war," Agrawal said, according to Roybal's account in the police report. "If you are not with me, then you are against me."

The police report goes on to say that Roybal told police that Agrawal said he was "packing heat in the car and we can go outside right now and settle this." Oddly, the report continues, Agrawal was allowed to calm down and come back inside the house, where he "hung out in the kitchen for approximately an hour" before leaving.

The police report says that when officers contacted Agrawal on Dec. 31, 2013, he said he couldn't remember making the threats, possibly because he "blacked out." Agrawal disputed that summary of events in Richman's report, suggesting officers "twisted or took his words out of context."

Van der Heide reportedly filed a restraining order against Agrawal in February, stating that he must stay "200 yards away from her, her daughter, several current and former Honda staffers, and Honda himself."

Richman's report adds new, previously unknown details about the interactions between Agrawal and Honda's staff, but Honda's office has not disputed the accuracy of the emails the former staffer leaked to San Jose Inside.

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.

9 Comments

  1. Nice source. Why no detail about the circumstances surrounding the alleged threats? That would be the most interesting part of the story. What an embarrassment for SJI.

    • Maybe this is why SJI doesn’t have more details on the threats? “San Jose Inside has repeatedly requested interviews with Van der Heide and Maben, but neither have been made available.”

      • This guy is SJI’s highly questionable source. I’m sure he would be able to provide a summary of the allegations, even if he claims they are false. There are also apparently a police report and restraining order. Does SJI have these documents or did it attempt to obtain them? It’s called reporting.

        • He’s a questionable source? Not a single person on Honda’s staff has denied his allegations or questioned the veracity of the email communication he provided to SJI.

  2. Still leaving out key details that less biased news sources include. Agrarwal denies his actions now, but when arrested he admitted that the two people who reported him for making the threats to murder two adults and a child were reliable and had no reason to lie about him. The police report didn’t just say that he was trying to “recruit” people to make ethics charges against Mr. Honda and his staff, as characterized here; it said that he was offering to pay people to do it. Mr. Honda’s staff has been forthright in admitting that the emails were real and not doctored. They have also shown records that they were sent on personal time, not office time. Further, the one time that another staff member sent an office email asking members of the staff if they would tweet or make Facebook posts, Ms. van der Heide immediately sent a reply to all-staff directing them that they could not do so and apologizing for the other person’s mistake.

    There is clear evidence that Ms. van der Heide went to great lengths to separate her official duties from her campaign activities and to direct other staff to do so as well. The one accusation that is left is that staff was pressured to volunteer for the campaign. Despite his efforts to pay people to join him in making that charge, Agrawal is alone in making that claim. That’s why is credibility is at issue, and given that he portrays himself as a whistle blower who resigned because of his ethics, the fact that he’s unstable and has threatened revenge and to shoot several people in the face leaves him with zero credibility. SJI and this reporter don’t have much credibility for leaving all of this stuff out either.

    On the other hand, Mr. Honda and his staff have let these accusations fester for quite a while, denying nothing, and taking personal responsibility for the way they conduct their business, when they surely knew all along who their accuser must have been. They had too much class to defend themselves by attacking someone who clearly needs counseling, even when it would have been good for their campaign. Too bad Mr. Khanna doesn’t have enough character to resist exploiting someone for his own benefit.

    • Unless one assumes I had more influence than a congressman, consideration
      should be given to the fact that charges were never filed.

      With regards to the restraining order, a crucial fact omitted by Josh Richman’s article is that I agreed
      to grant the order by stipulation (a stipulation means that I never had a day in court and no objective fact finder determined that the underlying allegations were true).

      Notably, I did not agree to a stipulation because I believed I had a weak case. Instead, I was planning on taking a restraining order out myself. However, I determined that a stipulation would be the cheapest way to achieve this objective: why pay the filing fees and associated court costs myself when the other side will pay them
      for me?

      With regards to the unproven innuendo, I never made any threats at the dinner that I was
      invited to 11 days after I informed Rep. Honda’s chief of staff that I had
      communicated my ethics concerns to a lawyer working for the House Ethics
      Committee.

      Every single line in the published summary of the police report is directly contradicted by the sole accuser’s own story to the court when requesting a restraining order.

      As the Mercury news tells the story, after a period of time spent threatening to use a gun I had in my car, I was allowed to return to hang out for a peaceful hour after a 4-5 minute walk to that very car where I supposedly had a gun (a gun that was never found after I voluntarily consented to a search of my car by SJPD).

      Recognizing how implausible this story told to the police would be, the Honda office chose to reverse to make them seem more believable. In the statement of facts included with the restraining order, the walk to my car for 4-5 minutes occurs before the threats, followed by a peaceful hour.

      What was actually occurring during this period of time was that I was going
      over with (on a Mac laptop in the home) the ethics issues documented in
      the emails (my Gmail account registered a login on this night at 9:09 pm,
      something that was omitted from both accusations).

      The other factual discrepancies include:

      · “According to the San Jose police report, Agrawal arrived drunk and kept drinking.” The restraining order attachment contains no claim about me being drunk upon
      arrival or during my time in the home.

      · Then, the article states that the report has Roybal claiming that I offered money for
      evidence of ethics violations. However, the attachment to the restraining order has no mention of such an offer.

      · The next paragraph in the article, stating that I wanted revenge is also in the
      restraining order. To be fair, this is the one instance where there is
      consistency with the between the two documents. However, I deny having a desire
      for revenge – instead I leaked to avoid revival of the criminal charges.

      · The article then states: “Roybal told police that Agrawal threatened to shoot Van der Heide and Honda’s district director, Meri Maben, the report says.” However, there is no direct threat against Ms. Maben in the restraining order. If such a threat did occur, it would most likely be included in the statements of facts of a case where that very person is requesting no contact.

      · In the next paragraph, it states “He stated that ‘if he has the means to punish them,
      he will,'” the police report says Roybal recounted. And he added that if
      he could shoot Van der Heide’s daughter in the face, he would, the report says.
      “The suspect stated several times, ‘I am going to war. If you are not with
      me, then you are against me.'” However, in the attachment to the RO,
      the order of events is different. In the articles telling of the police report,
      there are first threats against Van der Heide, then there is discussion about
      some supposed war. However, in the restraining order these events occur
      in the opposite order. In addition, notably, the words I supposedly used are
      different in the RO and police report.

      · Next it states, “Agrawal then argued with Reid and said he was “packing heat in the
      car and we can go outside right now and settle this,” Roybal told police.
      ” This is in the restraining order, but it’s in a different place. In the
      restraining order, first threats occur against Reid, then against Van der
      Hiede. In the article’s summary of the police report, these threats occur in
      the opposite order.

      Conclusion

      There are clear and substantiation between the stories, which should be taken into account when evaluating the credibility of the fabricated innuendo inserted into this conversation by Congressman Honda’s office (who was the source for Josh Richman’s original reporting).

  3. It’s about the message, not the messenger.

    Even disregarding statements by Agrarwal (the initial whistle blower):

    (1) There were multiple e-mails involved here, not just one. Honda’s office has not disputed the contents of the leaked emails. That is objective evidence, not somebody’s opinion.

    (2) There are multiple whistle blowers. As reported in San Jose Inside on September 30, “Since last week’s report, an additional former employee came forward and reinforced the accounts given by colleagues. During the years the staffer worked in Honda’s office, campaign activity on taxpayer time was routinely mixed in with official duties. ‘While the office can technically say, “Hey, do it on personal time,” there really is no discussion about taking a 10-minute break, or saying if you want to do this, take a 10-minute break,’ the staffer told SJI.” http://www.sanjoseinside.com/2014/09/30/hondas-staff-campaigned-on-the-clock-email-shows/

    (3) Honda’s staffers (including Ms. Van der Heide) refuse to be interviewed about this. Why won’t they explain how they “went to great lengths to separate her official duties from her campaign activities?” Because they do NOT want to get into the facts. It’s all just easier to demonize the whistle blower.

    Honda’s congressional office mixed governmental and campaign work (e.g., campaign “coffee breaks” in the office) and promoted a “pay-to-play” culture where campaign contributors and prospects were granted access to government events (evidenced by the emails). This story is just another indication of the culture that Honda promotes by relying on special interest, PAC and corporate donors. Without any real political influence (now that earmarks are gone), Honda is merely propped up by the donors that he serves. Constituents are nowhere in the mix. If you want to talk to your congressman at a town hall meeting, forget it. Instead, get out your checkbook and ask to attend a fundraiser. You gotta sleaze to please. Time to reboot.

    • Campaign contributions are public records. Try looking them up. You’ll see that it’s not Mike Honda who is taking the corporate or wealthy pay-to-play money. Honda has remarkably low average donations (about a $100 last time I looked) because actual constituents and the regular working people he cares about are the ones who provide almost all of the donations to his campaign. Khanna’s are nearly $1,000 per donation because the vast majority of his donations are from corporate executives and bundled money from the people who know that he’ll be more concerned about their interests if he’s elected. Bundlers are far more corrosive that even PACs. PACs have donation limits and the size of their contributions show up in the averages; bundlers don’t. One CEO can go to all of the execs, managers, and board members of a corporation and collect a thousand or two from each one and then drop off a $100,000 of donations at Khanna’s door. That’s pay to play, and Honda doesn’t do it. Khanna proved his worth to corporations when he attacked public pensions. If we need a reboot, do we really need one more congressman in Washington who represents corporate interests? When was the last time their voice wasn’t heard loudly enough?

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