A federal criminal complaint this week described how a small group of people control the city of Anaheim, by getting politicians elected to the City Council and expecting loyalty from them when it comes to policy decisions.
“We got you reelected, we expect you to be a loyal member of the team,” is how a key member of the “cabal” described it in a November 2020 phone call tapped by federal agents and quoted in their criminal complaint.
The conversation later turned to their work with Disney’s main vehicle for campaign money into Anaheim elections, which is known as SOAR.
Disney is by far the largest spender on Anaheim’s elections, putting over $1 million into SOAR in each of the last two elections, which is then spent on campaign ads for candidates backed by Disney and other resort-area businesses.
Disney has transferred another $1.3 million to SOAR ahead of this year’s election.
The discussion of the Disney money vehicle came up in the FBI wiretapped call – described in the criminal complaint – when one of the self-described “cabal” ringleaders discussed how it was too early to invite a newly-elected City Council member to understand how their “family” operates.
“I think this would be a lot for him to absorb in his first week [as an elected member of the Anaheim City Council],” said Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament, according to the FBI transcript.
“It’s kind of like when S.O.A.R. took how the sausage was made to the S.O.A.R. Board to show them how polling works and how we manipulate it,” he continued, according to the complaint.
“That’s when half S.O.A.R. kind of went off the deep end,” Ament added, prompting laughter on the other end of the line from the political consultant, the complaint states.
“We’re part of the manipulation. I think it’s too early for [the new City Council member] to get into this level of detail,” Ament added.
“Yeah, I agree,” replied the consultant.
Ament, who has served on SOAR’s advisory board, is the first person known to face criminal charges in the FBI’s wide-ranging Anaheim corruption investigation.
The political consultant on the other end of the November 2020 call is widely believed to be Jeff Flint, who has worked for SOAR. and Disneyland and announced he was taking a leave of absence in the wake of the FBI’s disclosures. Flint has denied wrongdoing.
In a statement, SOAR leaders said companies affiliated with Flint have worked for them in the past, but that they have no clue what Ament was talking about regarding manipulating polls.
“We read the same thing you read and have no idea what Todd is talking about. He was never involved in the creation of any public opinion research for SOAR,” said Jill Kanzler, SOAR’s executive director, in an emailed response Friday to Voice of OC.
“Todd Ament has never worked for SOAR,” she added, without noting his role on the group’s advisory board.
Referring to companies affiliated with Flint, she added: “Core Strategic Group and its affiliated companies have worked for SOAR in the past but those relationships have been terminated.”
She didn’t respond to a follow-up email asking if Flint worked on public opinion polling for SOAR.
Disneyland and its chief lobbyist, Carrie Nocella, didn’t return phone messages seeking comment for this article.
The FBI, meanwhile, wrote that the recorded conversation – detailed in the federal complaint – shows how “cabal” members manipulated SOAR’s polls “to show the public and elected officials that their policies were supported, when, in fact, they may not have been.”
“I know that lobbyists, consultants, and those advocating for certain public policies will, in an attempt to show public support for their viewpoint or policy objectives, commission and fund polls,” wrote FBI Special Agent Brian C. Adkins in the complaint.
“I suspected, at the time, that the polls might have been tools that were manipulated by those commissioning them in order to produce positive poll results. The positive poll results would then be used by the poll sponsors to show the public and elected officials that their policies were supported, when, in fact, they may not have been,” he added.
“Based on AMENT’s statement that ‘we manipulate it’ in reference to polls, I believe that AMENT confirmed my suspicion about manipulated polls. Specifically, I believe that AMENT and Political Consultant 1 acknowledged their role in manipulating polls for S.O.A.R. in this fashion,” Adkins continued.
“Furthermore, AMENT’s example of his and Political Consultant 1’s role in manipulating polls for S.O.A.R., and the apparent reaction of the S.O.A.R. Board of Directors as having gone ‘off the deep end’ after learning of such manipulation, is an example given by AMENT to show that [the new City Council member] may have the same reaction if brought into ‘the cabal’ where he would see how ‘the sausage is made.’ ”
When it comes to political spending in Anaheim, no one spends more than Disneyland.
Over the last decade, Voice of OC has chronicled how Disney has dominated election spending in Anaheim with millions of dollars that run through political action groups into campaign ads for and against particular candidates.
Former Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait – who was a rare voice on the council against large taxpayer subsidies for resort hotels – says he wasn’t surprised to see Disney’s main political money come up in the context of how the self-described “cabal” was influencing City Council members.
“The [SOAR] PAC always seemed to be central to what the other side was doing,” Tait said in an interview Friday with Voice of OC.
“From our side, that amount of money overwhelmed anything that our side could ever spend, or could ever raise, or were able to raise – by a factor of many times,” he added.
Tait said he couldn’t remember council members backed by SOAR “ever voting against big money interests – those interests that were big contributors to SOAR, from the Chamber [of Commerce] contract to the Disney votes.”
That made it difficult for the public to trace.
But more recently, Disney’s money has followed a simpler route – directly to SOAR which then spends directly on ads in the elections.
One major news outlet has faced consequences for reporting on Disney’s money and influence in Anaheim.
In 2016, Disney cut off the LA Times from seeing advance press screenings of its movies over a Times series on Disney’s campaign spending and taxpayer subsidies in Anaheim.
The two-part Times series questioned if Disney was “paying its fair share” in Anaheim. Among the deals it highlighted was the Mickey & Friends parking structure, which the city built for $108 million.
Disney paid the city $1 per year to lease the structure, while Disney likely makes tens of millions of dollars each year from the structure by charging at least $20 per day for each car, according to the paper.
Disney later lifted their ban on the Times following intense pushback from movie critics around the country – many of whom vowed not to write about Disney movies until the ban was lifted.
In the days since the FBI filings became public, insiders have been pouring over the documents for clues about who all the players are in the FBI’s court filings – which do not name most of them.
An enduring mystery is who is “Company A,” which has an employee described by the FBI in their complaint as a “ringleader” of the secretive “cabal” of power players at City Hall.
The company is described by the FBI in their complaint simply as “an influential company located in Anaheim” that asked to have their parking lot deleted from a planned speech to be given by a City Council member during a council policy discussion of bond approvals.
Company A’s employee helped pick who and who was not invited to the secret “cabal” meetings – and was involved in writing what an elected official said during a major decision on hundreds of millions of dollars in approvals, according to the federal complaint.
The employee and a political consultant – believed to be Flint – “used their influence to script statements made” by the unnamed elected official, according to the FBI affidavit attached to the complaint.
After Company A’s employee asked that a reference to the company’s parking lot be deleted from the City Council member’s script, it ultimately was not mentioned in the speech the council member gave, according to the FBI affidavit.
Since the federal criminal complaint was unveiled last week, questions have swirled throughout Orange County political circles about whether the “Company A” mentioned in the criminal complaint is Disney.
Company A, Disney and its employees have not been accused of any criminal wrongdoing in the FBI complaint, which is part of an ongoing investigation.
Voice of OC called, texted and emailed Carrie Nocella, Disneyland’s chief lobbyist in Anaheim, asking if she is “Company A Employee.”
A phone message and email were also sent by Voice of OC to Disneyland’s public relations asking if Disney is “Company A.”
Neither Nocella or Disneyland PR officials responded.
Tait, the former mayor, said he was both dismayed and hopeful about the FBI’s disclosures.
“I’m saddened, I guess, by getting a glimpse behind the scenes, seeing how it works behind the scenes, and sad for Anaheim. And concerned about Anaheim’s reputation. It’s got 350,000 people – hard-working, wonderful people – who deserve better.” Tait said.
“I also feel optimistic for the city. Because I think this whole thing will radically diminish the effect of big money on Anaheim politics and decisions,” he added.
Tait said it’s important that the city use “the taxpayers money for the people of Anaheim, as opposed to special interests.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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