A San Diego-based attorney is alleging, on behalf of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development or OCCORD, that four members of the Anaheim City Council violated the California Political Reform Act when they voted in May to approve a controversial $158-million subsidy for the developer of two high-end hotels.
Cory Briggs sent a letter last week to Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackaucks and state Attorney General Kamala Harris, urging both to prosecute the council members — Kris Murray, Gail Eastman, Lucille Kring and Jordan Brandman — for having illegal conflicts of interest with William O’Connell, the hotelier receiving the subsidy. Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait voted against the deal.
The vote gives O’Connell and his partner, who are building two four-star hotels near the resort district’s GardenWalk mall, to keep the majority of the project’s room tax revenue for 15 years.
Briggs’ letter argues that Eastman and Murray have business ties to O’Connell because they sit together on the Support Our Anaheim Resort or SOAR advisory board, a Disneyland-funded group that advocated for the subsidy.
SOAR advisory board members Todd Ament, Sandra Day and Stan Pawlowski publicly spoke in support of the subsidy, as did SOAR Executive Director Jill Kanzler. The letter alleges that Eastman and Murray also have a business relationship with these people because of their membership on the board.
Kring received $500 from SOAR’s political action committee a few months before the vote and another $500 after the vote, and public officials are not permitted to “vote on a campaign contributor’s project within 12 months of receiving the contribution,” the letter states.
And the letter cites SOAR’s endorsement of Brandman during his council campaign last year. Brandman also received a $1,800 campaign contribution from the SOAR political action committee June 30, 2012, making his vote to approve the project illegal, according to the letter.
Brandman, Kring, Eastman and Murray could not be immediately reached for comment. Kanzler and O’Connell could also not be reached.
“We received it today, and we’re going to review the matter,” said district attorney Chief of Staff Susan Schroeder.
O’Connell is already the target of a DA inquiry into whether campaign contributions to former Councilman Harry Sidhu, made under various hotel partnerships, exceeded the aggregate limit under the county’s campaign finance law. The status of that inquiry is unclear.
Briggs, who also represents several women who have made sexual harassment claims against San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, last year sued successfully on OCCORD’s behalf to have the original vote on the hotel subsidy voided because it violated the state’s open meetings law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act.
Robert Stern, an expert who helped write California’s political reform act, said the allegations in Briggs’ recent letter are off base. He said nothing in the act precludes council members from receiving campaign contributions and voting on the contributors’ project. And the business relationship on the SOAR board would only be a conflict if SOAR as an entity financially benefited from the votes, he said.
“Bottom line, 90 percent of campaign money comes from people who want something from government. Until the law is changed on that, there’s no disqualification,” Stern said.
The exception, Stern said, would be if there were to be a quid pro quo, something very hard to prove.
Briggs, however, pointed to a state court of appeal case that he said shows it is illegal for council members to receive $250 or more within a 12-month period of their votes. And he alleged that the SOAR board acts as a shell corporation to launder campaign contributions from members with business before the council.
Briggs said that while Stern might be correct about the letter of the law, the court of appeal has ruled differently.
“There’s a statute that says it, and a court of appeal that says otherwise,” Briggs said. “In my world, I listen to the court of appeal.”
The letter asks for the DA and attorney general to bring charges within 120 days. Briggs said he intends to file suit if there is no prosecution.