It took an FBI corruption probe for some to acknowledge what Anaheim residents – and a few dissident elected officials in town – have been saying for years.
“I hate to say it, but I told you so,” said Tom Fielder, a resident and member of the People’s Homeless Task Force at the regularly-scheduled Anaheim city council meeting on Tuesday. “Remember that you supported this guy and it wasn’t a shock to any of us as to what happened.”
Fielder was talking about Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu, who was not in his chair that evening, though many seemed to address him anyway.
Many in the council chambers believed Sidhu’s absence had something to do with a couple of FBI affidavits that allege a nebulous, shadowy cabal holding influence over City of Anaheim leaders. Much of the details surround the illegal sale of Angel Stadium.
And while Anaheim’s majority faction council members expressed shock, numerous public commenters took them to task, questioning how there could be surprise given how secretive and speedy stadium deliberations were.
“You are surprised because you willfully ignored repeated warnings and requests from many of us who appeared at this microphone for years,” said Cynthia Ward, a resident and former staff aide to former council member Denise Barnes, in public comments on Tuesday.
And while the FBI has refused to name some individuals within this “small cadre” as of Tuesday, two of them did not get anonymity in court filings by federal authorities this week:
Sidhu, as well as the former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO, Todd Ament.
Ament was officially indicted Tuesday for mortgage fraud and defrauding a cannabis company when seeking financing on a $1.5 million, five-bedroom residence in Big Bear City.
“The headlines were inevitable,” Ward said
“The only surprise is that it took the feds so long to pay attention to the graft and corruption festering at City Hall for the last two decades,” she added.
Now the scandal has people from around the county paying attention.
In a joint letter, California Senator Tom Umberg and Assembly Member Tom Daly called the Angel Stadium sale deal – which is part of the corruption probe – a “rip-off.”
“The recent articles detailing a federal investigation into Mayor Harry Sidhu’s unique role in the City of Anaheim’s sale of Angel Stadium have confirmed our previous concerns and raised new ones,” they wrote in the letter, referring to an earlier 2019 letter they sent raising concerns over the stadium.
Another reaction came from the prominent GOP fundraising group which endorsed Sidhu’s reelection campaign in February.
“The Lincoln Club of Orange County became aware of these allegations today and are taking them very seriously. We will evaluate our position with more information,” wrote Teresa Hernandez, the group’s president, in a Tuesday text message.
In an earlier call that morning, Hernandez said she had only heard about the scandal secondhand.
By Tuesday evening, the group had deleted its original endorsement message from Facebook.
Angels Baseball spokesperson Marie Garvey declined to comment on Tuesday.
During council members’ early comments addressing the scandal that evening, Councilman Jose Moreno – who has been vocal against the Angel Stadium deal and the council majority – turned the focus on another economic interest in town that’s spent heavily on citywide elections:
“I ask Disney formally to please cease all campaign donations to our elections in Anaheim,” Moreno said to a standing ovation in the council chambers.
A Disney spokesperson said the company would release a statement when asked for comment Tuesday but never sent one.
Staffers from other high-ranking county officials like Katrina Foley were also present Tuesday, observing from the audience.
Councilman Avelino Valencia and numerous other residents called on Sidhu to resign.
Sidhu was not in attendance Tuesday, “but I suspect he’s watching this meeting from home,” said Valencia.
He then addressed Sidhu, wherever he was.
“If you’re watching, you have one last opportunity to do the right thing for our city.”
Several council majority critics cast doubt on Valencia later in the meeting, questioning from the podium whether his push for the discussion was motivated by transparency or the fact he was running this year to replace the state assemblyman who he’s a staff director for, Tom Daly.
Valencia’s “taken all the money from the same people,” said Mike Robbins, another People’s Homeless Task Force of Orange County member, during public comment.
Roughly two dozen public speakers decried Sidhu as “corrupt.”
Former Anaheim Councilwoman Denise Barnes was among them.
“Once Harry Sidhu came on as our mayor the road took a different turn. We needed more than two votes to put something on the agenda,” she said. “Where’s the conscience? And I’m going to call you men but I don’t think you are. You are monsters at times and for those of you that are new on the council, you’re so easily naive”
“We need to clean this swamp.”
Council members took special time at the start of the meeting to sound off on the news about Sidhu, frequently by calling it a “dark day” and characterizing a “cloud over the city.”
Trevor O’Neil, a council majority member under Sidhu who ran the meeting Tuesday in the mayor’s absence, spoke first.
“I will begin by assuring the community that this council and the city operated in good faith on the stadium negotiation. There has been surprising and concerning information that has been made public within the last 24 hours that was unbeknownst to many of us and not part of the public process,” he said.
Audience members groaned as majority faction council members like Gloria Ma’ae and Stephen Faessel distanced themselves from the FBI scandal in their remarks.
“It’s a feeling of betrayal,” said Ma’ae, who’s been closely associated with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and the chamber-created Anaheim First.
Moreno called for an investigation into city staff at the meeting.
He got emotional, however, over his conflicted feelings: “Please know that for me, this is not an indictment of you and your integrity. Rather, I find this necessary to ensure that your names and your reputations are not unnecessarily smeared due to this tragic circumstance.”
“We must all be assured that this was isolated to the mayor and his cronies,” Moreno said.
“Surprise, surprise, surprise. Y’all trying to play the Gomer Pyle,” said Ken Batiste, a former council candidate and council majority critic. “Who you trying to fool? You enabled it.”
While members of the council majority called a “dark” day for Anaheim, Batiste and others said they were practically toasting drinks.
“This is a good day. It exposes the corruption that we have been fighting for the last four years. We are tired of funded ass politicians that vote for Disneyland, Angels – everybody else except for the residents,” Batiste said.
Steve White, who sits on Anaheim’s planning commission, said in a Tuesday phone interview that the Angel Stadium deal Sidhu pushed was illegal to begin with.
“It normally takes up to a year to process an application for a business or longer. The stadium sale deal, which was a huge deal, was processed in less than 90 days,” he said. “As far as the corruption charges, I long suspected there was something underhanded going on and more will be revealed, I guess.”
“I’m glad that some of the corruption is coming to light in the city finally.”
Cesar Covarrubias, executive director of the Kennedy Commission, said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon that his nonprofit has challenged the Angel Stadium deal as a violation of the Surplus Land Act.
“It was a process that moved really quickly and in secret and was not transparent and did not provide any opportunity for public participation. And so it is not surprising that this is being alleged,” he said, pointing out that Sidhu made himself the sole negotiator in the deal.
Mike Robbins, president of the People’s Homeless Task Force OC, called out Sidhu and other city council members in an interview before the meeting.
“This is America. This is democracy. And this is a perversion of the democratic system. These people have turned this place into an oligarchy,” he said.
“It’s really not a secure democracy, we’ve only been in existence for 200 years… But these people are traitors to the system. And they bring low not only America, but of course have destroyed Anaheim.”
“Nothing is over until the prison outfits are presented to you – in a sooner hopefully than a later date,” he said later, at the actual meeting. “Resign now, all of you.”
After Mike, his wife Jeanine Robbins, who has also spent years at the public comment dais raising questions about stadium deliberations, got her chance to sound off.
“Well, well, well, look where we are now,” said Robbins.
“Meeting after meeting for years now, Mike and I have pointed out the corruptness of the city council majority, both current and past members. You liars, cheats, and thieves sitting up there have mocked us, snickered at us, called us names and have called us liars.”
“Well, look where we are now.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Brandon Pho 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 @photherecord.
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