Anaheim’s top administrator acknowledges attending a “retreat” held by what an FBI criminal complaint has called “a specific, covert group of individuals that wielded significant influence over the inner workings of Anaheim’s government.”

In a statement sent to the Voice of OC on Friday afternoon, City Manager Jim Vanderpool admitted to attending a meeting on December 2, 2020 that was called out by FBI officials and included city council members and Anaheim Chamber of Commerce representatives.

A federal agent wrote about how “ringleaders” talked about the meeting in the criminal complaint, which alleges a nebulous, shadowy cabal holds influence over City of Anaheim leaders.

According to the FBI criminal complaint, this alleged cabal “met in person to discuss strategy surrounding several matters within Anaheim — matters that were often pending, or soon to be pending, before the Anaheim City Council.”

Former President and CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce Todd Ament is the subject of the criminal complaint in which the FBI say he is one of the ring leaders behind the group.

Ament is now facing charges of mortgage fraud, including claims of public corruption.

Meanwhile, Mayor Harry Sidhu appears at the center of an FBI probe where much of the details surround the illegal sale of Angel Stadium.

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Vanderpool declined to be interviewed on the phone for this story after issuing a statement confirming his attendance at the meeting and declining to name who else specifically was present at the meeting called out by the FBI.

The statement came after Voice of OC reached out to both Vanderpool and city spokesperson Mike Lyster through email asking if Vanderpool attended one of the meetings described in Ament’s criminal complaint as “retreats.”

While Vanderpool confirmed he was at the December 2020 meeting called out in the FBI affidavit, he questioned how FBI agents described the gathering. 

“The meeting focused on the pandemic’s economic impact, planning for the rollout of vaccines, the impacted city budget and working toward getting Anaheim’s economy back open,” said Vanderpool –  who was hired by the council majority after City Manager Chris Zapata was fired on a split vote in 2020 – in a statement.

Zapata was fired by Sidhu and his council majority after he openly questioned lucrative contracts for resort-promotion groups tied to the chamber of commerce. 

[Read: Anaheim City Council Sacks City Manager]

Vanderpool was brought in by the majority faction of the city council after Zapata’s firing.

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On Friday, Vanderpool spoke to the references to high-level city staff in the federal criminal complaint and the allegations by FBI agents that such special invite-only gatherings were used to “discuss strategy surrounding several matters within Anaheim – matters that were often pending, or soon to be pending, before the Anaheim City Council.” 

“I have read the same descriptions as others, and it is disheartening to see this meeting portrayed that way,” Vanderpool wrote to the Voice of OC. “That is not what I experienced.” 

Prior to Vanderpool’s statement and at the request of the Voice of OC to seek comment from the city manager, Councilman Jose Moreno provided the Voice of OC with a cell phone number he said belonged to Vanderpool.

Yet the person who picked up the phone denied being Vanderpool.

The US Phone Book listed the number as belonging to Paul Emery.

Emery was a former city manager for Anaheim who resigned in 2017.

Several Voice of OC reporters have had similar experiences when calling Mayor Harry Sidhu for comment, except the person answering the phone claimed to be Sidhu’s younger son. In each case, reporters left verbal messages for comment that were never returned. 

In his Friday afternoon statement, Vanderpool said the December meeting called out by the FBI occurred when he first started with the city, adding that when he worked in Buena Park, he enjoyed a “collaborative” partnership with the North Orange County Chamber of Commerce.

“The meeting I attended focused on critical issues facing Anaheim,” Vanderpool wrote to Voice of OC. “If others viewed this as anything other than that, I cannot speak to that,” he said. “I came to Anaheim with the same expectations and attended this meeting at a critical time for our city.”

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FBI Agent Brian Adkins described such gatherings differently.

In a 99-page criminal complaint released this week, Adkins wrote Ament and a “political consultant” would host “retreats” to discuss business throughout the city and form new initiatives. 

“The meetings that Political Consultant 1 and AMENT orchestrated were referred to as retreats,” Adkins wrote. “ Attendees to the retreats, one of which was believed to have taken place within a suite at a hotel near the Anaheim Resort, were carefully selected by Political Consultant 1 and AMENT.”

In the same complaint, Adkins details a conversation between Ament and an unnamed “political consultant” that the FBI intercepted on Nov. 23, 2020 in which the consultant says the first retreat should be “family members only.”

“Based on Political Consultant 1’s statement that the retreat needs to be ‘family members only,’ I believe that the metric used for deciding whom to invite to the retreat was, first and foremost, based on trust,” the agent wrote in the criminal complaint.

In the same phone call, the lobbyist and Ament debated what elected city officials they should bring into what Ament described as a “cabal”, according to the complaint.

“I believe that Political Consultant 1 and AMENT had defined a specific, covert group of individuals that wielded significant influence over the inner workings of Anaheim’s government,” Adkins writes.

A week later – on Nov. 30 –  FBI officials intercepted another phone call –  this time between the lobbyist and an unnamed elected official in which the lobbyist says the “retreat” will take place on Dec. 2, according to the complaint.

Vanderpool said he attended a meeting in December but declined to elaborate with a phone interview.

“The meeting was Dec. 2, 2020. City Manager Vanderpool was happy to provide a statement and doesn’t have anything additional to share at this time,” wrote Lyster in response to Voice of OC’s follow up questions. 

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Next week, city council members are expected to host a discussion on the future of the Angel Stadium deal – one week after the federal investigation and complaint came to light.

This past week, City Councilman Jose Moreno called for outside investigators to look into the role city staff may have played in the issues raised in the FBI affidavit and criminal complaint. 

Typically, the city manager – in this case Vanderpool – would oversee the hiring of outside investigators. 

Councilman Jose Moreno said in a phone interview Friday afternoon Vanderpool should not be involved in the investigations but said it was too soon for him to determine whether Vanderpool should be put on administrative leave.

He also said that this is exactly why a special independent investigation into what extent and what role city staff played in this “illegal and unethical behavior” is needed.

“That’s precisely why I’m calling for that form of investigation that is independent of the city,” said Moreno. “So that we can affirm the trust we want to have in our staff and exonerate them if in fact, they just got caught up as a staff in the wheeling dealings of a mayor and a cabal.” 

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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