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.”
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.”