The Orange County district attorney’s office has postponed its inquiry into a potential campaign finance violation in Anaheim until additional staff resources arrive, Chief of Staff Susan Schroeder said last week.
The DA is looking to answer whether Anaheim City Councilman Harry Sidhu accepted $3,400 in illegal campaign contributions from entities controlled by hotelier Bill O’Connell during the councilman’s 2010 race for county supervisor.
Those contributions first came into question when the City Council majority – including Sidhu -- voted to award a $158-million room-tax subsidy to a development partnership involving O'Connell. The developer was granted the subsidy to help it build two four-star hotels at the GardenWalk mall, sparking a contentious community split over hotel tax subsidies.
Schroeder has said in the past that such campaign finance violations are “black and white” – they either did or didn’t happen.
Yet eight months after Voice of OC first revealed the potential violation, the DA’s office hasn’t concluded its inquiry. Other “extremely pressing cases” have come up, Schroeder said, and the Sidhu inquiry has become “second priority” to those cases. She declined to specify the cases that have taken top priority.
Schroeder said with the Orange County Board of Supervisors’ approval last week of additional resources to pursue public corruption, DA investigators will hopefully be able to finish the campaign finance check.
“Hopefully with the increase in that unit we’ll be able to finish our inquiry into that matter,” Schroeder said.
At their meeting last week, supervisors approved an additional $1.1 million for District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' budget to tackle a sharp uptick in public corruption complaints. At last week’s board meeting, Rackauckas told supervisors there were 147 open files, and the office is likely to handle significantly more than the 150 it investigated during all of last year.
Rackauckas sought a total of seven positions, including prosecutors, investigators and support staff.
The Anaheim inquiry focuses on whether Sidhu violated a specific provision of the county’s campaign finance law that sets an aggregate contribution limit for individuals and the entities they control.
In 2010, three partnerships connected to O'Connell — Anaheim Park Place Inn, Best Western Pavilions and Stovall's Inn — gave $5,100 to Sidhu's supervisorial campaign. At least two contributions totaling $3,400 would have exceeded the limit had O'Connell been behind the contributions, campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle argued.
O'Connell acknowledged to a Voice of OC reporter that he personally wrote the checks to Sidhu's campaign. He said he had made the contributions under the different partnerships for tax purposes.
O’Connell has consistently maintained to Grindle that his contributions did not violate the law. He said his son and another family controlled two other entities that contributed to Sidhu’s campaign. Grindle backed off her allegation and refund demand after O’Connell’s statements.
However, Grindle renewed her allegation after Voice of OC provided her with a statement of economic interests showing that O’Connell was managing partner at “Best Western Stovall Hotels,” which has the same address as his business office and Stovall’s Inn LLC, the entity he had claimed was controlled by the Stovall family. Stovall’s Inn LLC also lists O’Connell as the agent for processing on the secretary of state’s online database.
Sidhu has not responded to Grindle’s refund demand since then.