Big changes look to be coming to Anaheim City Hall – impacting council meetings and potentially city business contracts – immediately following Mayor Harry Sidhu’s resignation after revelations of an FBI corruption probe into his city hall dealings.
More than 60 people turned out to speak at Tuesday’s city council meeting to express their outrage over an FBI corruption probe that was made public last week. Many of them also called on the city to cancel the Angel Stadium deal, which is caught up in the probe. They also are demanding full city investigations into the role of city staff and council majority members in the ongoing scandal.
Council members Jose Moreno and Avelino Valencia are calling for a full accounting of any contracts the city has with organizations and people caught up in the FBI probe, including the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
Moreno was able to schedule a campaign finance reform discussion for the city council’s next meeting, which could aso ban campaign contributions from any vendor the city contracted with.
“We must recognize that this looming cloud of doubt and public betrayal does not confine solely to the mayor. It has been the worst kept secret in Anaheim,” Moreno said, referencing special interests groups like the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
He’s also looking to make city council members recuse themselves on votes if they impact donors who spent $250 or more on their campaigns.
At last week’s City Council meeting, Moreno called to end all contracts with the chamber – including its affiliate organizations like Anaheim First.
Valencia is now calling for a full audit of contracts from organizations like the chamber and hinted at ending some of them.
“If Harry Sidhu was willing to undermine our taxpayers by approving a bad stadium deal in exchange for campaign contributions and other political gains, I have to ask myself what other contracts would be void,” Valencia said, adding there needs to be an audit of any city contracts with Sidhu’s campaign donors.
Dozens of residents came out during public comment to voice their outrage at the public corruption revelations detailed in the FBI affidavits.
Many were largely ignored by the council majority for years – especially during the Angel Stadium negotiations.
Mayoral candidate Ashleigh Aitken said the current stadium deal should be canned. Her father, Wylie Aitken, serves as chairman of Voice of OC’s board of directors.
“The Angel’s deal must be canceled. This time if we’re going to go forward, it must be done in an honest and transparent manner. This includes an independent appraisal of our biggest asset,” Aitken told council members.
California State Assembly candidate Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente called out Valencia, his opponent in the assembly race, for taking contributions from the same groups as Sidhu.
“I cannot ignore the fact that a handful of you council members, including my opponent, Avelino Valencia, are funded by the same systems that gave to Mayor Sidhu’s campaign and are the subject of the FBI investigation with the stadium such as SOAR and FSB Public Affairs,” Vicente said during public comment, adding that Valencia should suspend his campaign.
He echoed calls for an investigation into council members as well as calls to keep special interest groups like Disneyland and the chamber of commerce to stay out of elections.
“We need leaders who will put our people first,” Vicente said. “Now’s the time to come clean before it’s too late. Our kids are watching. Our neighbors are watching and we will make ourselves heard.”
In an FBI criminal complaint, special agent Brian Adkins detailed how a “a specific covert group of individuals” held significant influence over Anaheim’s local government.
According to the complaint, the covert group “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.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, O’Neil admitted to attending a meeting on Dec. 2, 2020 – which was called out by the FBI.
“Specific to the December 2, 2020 meeting referenced – I attended,” he said, adding that he left early and that Councilman Stephen Faessel was there as well.
Faessel, who spoke after O’Neil, stayed silent on his participation in what FBI officials described as a “retreat.”
They weren’t the only ones there.
Last week, City Manager Jim Vanderpool admitted to attending one of the invite only “retreats” in a statement to the Voice of OC – questioning the way FBI agents described the meetings.
Voice of OC also reached out to city council members questioning if they attended the invite-only meetings but O’Neil, Faessel and Gloria Ma’ae did not respond.
Councilmembers Moreno, Valencia and Jose Diaz denied attending those meetings.
During Tuesday’s meeting, O’Neil said he’s Elected Official 3 detailed in the FBI corruption affidavit filed in former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament’s mortgage fraud complaint.
Adkins, the FBI agent, said he recorded a phone call between Ament and an unnamed political consultant in late November 2020, which indicates O’Neil is a team player in what the FBI describes as a “cadre” of special interest groups who run the city.
“[Elected Official 3] may do a little bit of self promoting, but at the end of the day, he’s going to be loyal to the team, [Elected Official 4] the same. Almost to the point, [Elected Official 4], we tell [Elected Official 4], we got you reelected, we expect you to be a loyal member of the team,” reads the affidavit in Ament’s criminal complaint.
O’Neil also said he’s returned some campaign contributions from entities like the chamber.
“I have returned campaign contributions I received from the entities and associated individuals referenced in the affidavit. I will continue to support actions that help our city move past this,” O’Neil said.
Valencia also said he gave some contributions back when the FBI investigation came to light after a resident called him out during public comments.
Meanwhile, changes to the meetings are coming, which would allow more policy discussions from minority council members.
Sidhu, almost immediately becoming mayor, spearheaded big changes to Anaheim’s agenda-setting requirements in January 2019 – which mandated that two other city council members support a colleague’s agenda proposal before it gets scheduled.
Critics and Anaheim council minority members Jose Moreno and former Councilwoman Denise Barnes told Voice of OC that the change was intended to silence any policy proposals they had, which included things like stadium discussions and rent control to protect seniors facing rent hikes at a mobile home park.
As Tuesday’s City Council meeting kicked off, Councilman Trevor O’Neil – who’s running the meetings because he’s the mayor pro tempore – said he wants to eliminate the need for the additional support.
O’Neil said he’s looking at “eliminating the need for support of two other council members in order to agendize” an item.
Yet O’Neil was one of the Sidhu-led council majority members who voted for the 2019 changes.
On Tuesday night, numerous public speakers took issue with council members like O’Neil – who were close allies of Sidhu and the chamber for years.
“Todd Ament used a majority of you as just pawns in his game to put us in this position,” said longtime real estate agent Paul Kott, who’s been critical of the stadium deal. “It was thought that Harry and Todd could do no wrong … now what do you think?”
Longtime activist and stadium deal critic, Ken Batiste, admonished the council majority for constantly siding with Sidhu over the years.
“You approved every motion that Harry brought up. Every motion he brought up he got approved and 90, 95% of them was seconded by you Mr. O’Neil,” Batiste said. “Don’t go ahead and act like all of this was over with.”
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam
And since you’ve made it this far,
You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.