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.