Questions Surround Ex-Anaheim Councilwoman’s Dinner With Developer

Former Anaheim Councilwoman Gail Eastman at the dais during a meeting in 2013.

Adam Elmahrek/Voice of OC

Former Anaheim Councilwoman Gail Eastman at the dais during a meeting in 2013.

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The night Gail Eastman stepped off the Anaheim City Council she celebrated her four years of council service by going out to dinner with her family and Bill O’Connell, the developer of two planned hotels near the GardenWalk outdoor mall.

O’Connell paid the bill. It was a gift to Eastman and her family, and according to a thank you note written by Eastman, not unprecedented.

“We certainly didn’t expect you to pick up the whole tab, that was incredibly generous of you,” Eastman wrote in a Dec. 11 email to O’Connell, two days after the dinner. “And upon reflection not surprising as I’ve been the beneficiary of your generosity in the past.”

(For a copy of the whole email exchange, click here.)

Yet the dinner would be surprising to anyone familiar with Eastman’s statements of economic interests, or Form 700s, the public disclosure forms elected officials are required to file under state law that show sources of gifts and income. She not only didn’t disclose the dinner, she’s never disclosed any gifts from O’Connell during her years on council.

And during those years, she was a part of a council majority that granted O’Connell a highly controversial $158-million room-tax subsidy to construct two four-star hotels.

In her email, Eastman wrote that O’Connell and his wife had become “dear friends” and that they should get together again in the New Year. “Just friends over dinner,” she wrote.

If the millionaire hotelier, his wife, the former councilwoman and her family had dined at an inexpensive restaurant in December, then she probably didn’t have to disclose the dinner as a gift, according to a government ethics expert familiar with the law.

Officials must disclose each gift from a source to themselves and certain family members, like a spouse and children who depend on the officials’ income, if the aggregate total of the gifts exceed $50. And last year, the overall gift limit for public officials from a single source was $440.

“If they went to Sizzler, it wasn’t a problem,” said Bob Stern, author of the 1974 Political Reform Act, which sets rules on gifts to public officials. “[But] if they went to Mastros [Steakhouse,] then half a meal would be at least $50.”

The answer to that question remains unclear. Neither Eastman nor O’Connell returned phone calls seeking comment.

And although it was Eastman’s last official night on council, she would still have to report the dinner if it exceeded the limit because the disclosure form covered the entire year.

Regardless of the fine points, the revelation has a previous candidate for council and advocate for the city’s underserved Latino population calling for a sunshine ordinance that would increase transparency at City Hall.

Jose Moreno, president of the Latino group Los Amigos of Orange County, says the email exchange and lack of disclosure raises “red flags” about the close relationship between O’Connell and Eastman, and the votes she cast to give O’Connell millions in city funds.

“What is she hiding?” Moreno said.

Moreno also said the possibility of unreported gifts could affect an ongoing lawsuit by Orange County Community Responsible for Organized Development (OCCORD) aimed at invalidating the massive tax subsidy, and he called on the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission and Orange County District Attorney’s office to investigate.

The suit alleges conflicts of interest between members of the council majority and O’Connell based on aggregated campaign contributions and other relationships. The case is scheduled for another hearing in May.

There have also been other allegations of undue influence by O’Connell over council members.

In 2013, a Voice of OC article detailed how Councilwoman Lucille Kring flip-flopped on her position against the $158-million tax subsidy after former Mayor Curt Pringle, who had become O’Connell’s lobbyist, threw Kring a fundraiser to help repay loans she had made to her campaign.

Before Kring’s change of heart, she wrote in an email that Pringle had refused to throw fundraisers for her in the past because she “never voted his way,” and that she defiantly told Pringle her “vote was not for sale.”

Later, Kring would defend her vote for the tax subsidy by arguing that it changed from giving 80 percent of the development’s room-tax revenue to 70 percent over a longer period of time, a change in terms that gave O’Connell the same rebate cap that she said made the deal much better for the public.

Last year, the district attorney’s office levied a fine against former Councilman Harry Sidhu for taking campaign cash from O’Connell’s businesses that were over the limit set by the county’s campaign finance ordinance. It’s the only known enforcement of the law, known as TINCUP, in recent memory.

Moreno pointed out that, even though Eastman is currently off council, she’s opened a campaign committee to run again in 2016.

O’Connell for one looks forward to see Eastman on council again.

“Hopefully you will consider running for office again in the future,” the hotelier wrote in response to Eastman. “Anaheim is going to need people like you who truly care about the entire city.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

  • Alex Ojin

    Wait…didn’t the New Guy get sworn in earlier that night??? How could Gail Eastman, FORMER Councilwoman be accountable for a dinner with her family hosted by a lifelong family friend???

    • Philmore

      Very good that you can READ, now work on that COMPREHENSION.. Go back and find the part about CALENDAR REQUIREMENTS FOR LEGAL REPORTING of GIFTS and HER VOTE ON A GIGANTIC TAX REBATE THAT BENEFITTED HER “FRIEND”. Make SENSE now ?

  • John Johnson

    This no shock. Gail Eastman along with her corrupt colleagues Kris Murray, Lucille Kring, and Jordan Brandman except bribes, I mean contributions all the time.

  • Jeffrey Dickman

    All the more reason for an OC Ethics Commission modeled after LA City.

    • Trudy White

      It may be the look of a woman wondering how she ended up with such a bad haircut…but that is just a guess. 😉

  • David Zenger

    Is that a look of engaged concentration, or a look of almost angry bewilderment?

    • Trudy White

      It may be the look of a woman wondering how she ended up with such a bad haircut…just a guess. 😉

      • astar2b

        Good one!

  • Rose72

    We need to watch our local politicians because they often end up in congress. Corporate controlled main stream news media too afraid to give the public real news distracts us with idiotic news about the stabbing down the street and car chases etc. or happenings across the globe while local politicians “pick our pockets.” We need the Voice of OC.

  • Paul Lucas

    Lou Correa endorsed this lady.

  • Trudy White

    Really? With all of the criminal activity and corruption at the highest levels, with STAGGERING harm to citizens and employees, THIS is the hot topic? Who gives a rat’s posterior? He bought dinner. Big deal.

    • Philmore

      Gee, another sermon from the ‘First Church of Two Wrongs Make a Right’. Exactly WHAT are YOU doing to improve awareness, much less prevent, the vague ‘problems’ on other levels of Government you use for misdirection? I would bet, hardly anything on THOSE levels either, beyond the same ill-informed noisemaking.

    • Therese

      Yep Trudy…criminal activity and corruption at the highest levels occurs daily…I’d love to tell my story. tmmtexas@hotmail.com
      Therese McClane

  • David Zenger

    Cheap date.