Bribery, wire fraud, false statements, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
That’s how federal agents on Monday publicly characterized the efforts of Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu, the city’s main negotiator with the LA Angels, in the bid to quickly sell off the public stadium and 150 acres of land around it in recent years to a development team led by Angels’ team owner Arte Moreno.
After a decade of reporting on the secretive and rushed nature of Anaheim’s efforts to strike a public stadium deal with the Angels, it was noteworthy on Monday to see that FBI agents read Voice of OC.
We’ve been on this story since the deal was first unfurled in 2012, just ahead of the Labor Day holiday with a lame, $1-a-year lease. It looks to me like city leaders kept the same one-sided concept but only made it more complex to try to sell the stadium in 2022.
In a searing, 41-page affidavit that often quoted open source media like ours attached to a Monday legal filing by CA Attorney General Rob Bonta, FBI agents detailed an ongoing investigation – one that already alleges a disturbing bid by Sidhu to peddle information to the Angels, destroy documents and steer public bodies like the OC Grand Jury away from any kind of critical review of the sale.
The affidavit reads like something out of the final act of the film Casino, where the FBI swoops in.
Today, Bonta’s office is asking Orange County Superior Court Judge Glenn Salter to put a 60-day hold on the stadium sale proceedings.
There have been rumors of FBI agents looking into this sale for years, which raises an interesting question of how in the world Bonta, who is up for re-election this year, could have entered into a deal with Sidhu – all while the mayor was a central target in a federal corruption probe.
I wonder if Bonta’s filing of the stipulated judgment forced the FBI probe to go public now.
According to FBI statements, Sidhu’s motive for speeding through the stadium sale was to get the Angels to steer as much as $1 million in independent campaign expenditures during his upcoming reelection campaign later this year.
We reached out to Sidhu’s lawyer, who said it was too early to comment.
FBI officials, in their affidavit, also note that key documents were held back by city officials in a resident lawsuit alleging the stadium was sold illegally, prompting questions whether that lawsuit may be reopened.
And apparently, the feds have lots of wiretaps out there, which means this morning there’s a lot of insiders trying to remember exactly what they talked to Mayor Harry Sidhu about in recent times over the phone.
City officials quickly put out a statement Monday afternoon, separating city staff from Sidhu, posting the FBI affidavit with the corruption allegations on the city website.
In his statement, City Manager Jim Vanderpool called the allegations “troubling” and insisted that city of Anaheim officials have “worked in good faith on a proposal that offered benefits for our community.”
Yet the FBI just connected that proposal to an alleged corruption scheme, one that played out over several years.
Right in front of city officials’ faces.
For anyone covering these negotiations – and I have covered several stadium deals in my career – there has been a horribly-tilted, one-sided and rushed nature to Anaheim’s stadium negotiations from day one.
Again and again, Anaheim city leaders have continually given up advantageous positions during public deliberations that seemed incredibly tilted.
Anytime Anaheim taxpayers had an advantage in negotiations with the LA Angels, Sidhu and his city council majority blunted it.
I recall when council members opted to reinstate a lease ripped up by the Angels during the 2018 elections – a risky move that paid off when Sidhu later got elected and led city council efforts to give the team a lease extension without anything in return.
Sidhu largely billed the move a one-year “temporary lease extension” in January 2019, shortly after becoming mayor. It wasn’t until months later some city council members realized Sidhu’s move actually tied up the land for years.
Putting Anaheim back in the team’s name also quickly became an afterthought for city leaders once negotiations began – with council members themselves publicly stating team owners told them naming the team after Anaheim was a non-starter.
All this should prompt a real hard questioning of the governing cabal in Anaheim that pushed this rushed stadium sale.
The “FBI learned that the City of Anaheim was tightly controlled by a small cadre of individuals, including SIDHU, a particular member of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, and others,” reads a Thursday affidavit from FBI agent Brian Adkins in Bonta’s court filing.
Anaheim residents should be asking hard questions about who these individuals are and their impact on city policy.
Indeed, official statements by FBI officials already indicate that at least one high-ranking Anaheim Chamber of Commerce official is an informant along with potentially one of the main political consultants active at Anaheim city hall.
These insiders – who have longstanding ties in Anaheim – all worked to get Sidhu appointed to the city’s negotiating team by lobbying city council members, according to FBI testimony.
Now, as usual, City of Anaheim officials are in full spin mode – as has been the case with all the stadium deliberations – with City Spokesman Mike Lyster downplaying the FBI probe as a “federal review.”
It reminds me of when the AG Bonta announced a fine over violations of the Surplus Land Act earlier this month during a bizarre news conference where Bonta was super friendly with Sidhu.
We got major blowback from city officials for using the word “fine” in our headline and story.
Lyster insisted the stipulated judgment against the city should be described as a settlement. Sidhu and Councilman Trevor O’Neil also publicly repeated that claim from the dais the day after Bonta’s news conference.
There was no fine. No admission of guilt, they argued.
Yet that was something that state officials told our reporters was complete BS, noting that the $96 million fine imposed on the city came from the penalty provisions of the Surplus Land Act.
I noticed that the pressure play worked at the Orange County Register’s newsroom, which agreed to the city’s one-sided push and changed its use of the word, Fine to Settlement.
For the record, the OC Register’s editorial board has come out aggressively against the one-sided and secretive nature of the city’s stadium negotiations.
I respect my OC Register newsroom colleagues but in this instance, I believe they are wrong.
I asked Register beat reporter Alicia Robinson about the change in terms and she referred me to the Register’s top editor, Todd Harmonson, who confirmed they changed their headline – noting that their reporting found that the change was merited.
“Our top priority always is to be accurate, and after all our reporting we determined that the story should be adjusted to reflect that there was a settlement via a stipulated judgment,” Harmonson wrote me in an email, adding it would be his only comment on the matter.
The OC Register’s shift was something Anaheim Councilman Trevor O’Neil publicly applauded from the city council dais earlier this month when approving the payment of the fine in the stipulated judgment.
He criticized our approach without naming us.
To be clear, we stand by our reporting.
A fine paid as part of a judgment imposed by a judge at the request of the state AG is not a settlement – regardless of the arguments presented by Lyster, Sidhu and O’Neil, which we did include in our stories.
If anything, this recent glimpse into the FBI probe really raises some troubling questions about what kind of role Anaheim officials may have played in a process that seems fueled by corrupt motives.
Already, it seems the FBI probe is prompting serious discussions across Anaheim, with many saying the place will never be the same.
“This will start the pendulum swinging the other way, like really fast,” said former Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, “Which is a good thing.”
On Monday, a campaign fundraiser for Sidhu planned for next month was abruptly canceled.
Tait, a former mayor who was once voted Orange County’s most popular Republican elected official while in office, argues the federal probe should prompt Anaheim residents to question the “network” around politicians like Sidhu.
“It’s a police union, a fire union, the Orange County Business Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the trades union, the resort interests,” Tait noted, highlighting the need to curb the influence of special interest campaign money, such as precluding anyone taking contributions from special interests from voting on their projects.
That move could mean a majority of Anaheim City Council members wouldn’t be able to vote on most of the big projects in the Disneyland resort area.
Tait also calls out Disney, questioning what kind of environment the big theme park has generated at city hall in recent years by being one of the largest campaign finance players that fund waves of nasty attack ads.
“If you’re Disney, you might ask yourself some questions,” Tait said.
“Why get involved in the gutter?
Recently, one prominent local Republican quietly pointed reporters to a Facebook post praising Sidhu from the prominent fundraising group, the Lincoln Club of Orange County.
“Without a doubt, Mayor Sidhu has ushered in an era of prosperity and growth for the city of Anaheim,” said Lincoln Club President Teresa Hernandez in a quote attached to the February endorsement.
“Mayor Sidhu showcases his sharp business skills in how he expertly balances smart population growth with a thoughtful approach to creating new jobs, all without sacrificing Southern California’s unique character,” Hernandez said.
State Senator Tom Umberg – who raised repeated concerns along with State Assemblyman and former Mayor Tom Daley about the lack of transparency in the sale process – told me Monday night he expects considerable “spillover” after reading the FBI affidavit.
Umberg said he and Daly expect to continue moving forward with state legislation that would make public land deals more transparent and even potentially invalidate deals that trigger such FBI “reviews.”
In many ways, the FBI has given the residents of Anaheim a real chance to reboot their local city hall from one of the nastiest places I’ve ever dealt with to a balanced city hall that can help spur a resort district without overly catering to special interests and still focus on providing equitable services to all residents.
Was Harry Sidhu the real ringleader here?
Or did the conspiracy go beyond him?
The next few weeks will be quite telling to see which officials start cutting deals with the feds.
Remember insiders, usually the first ones to cut deals get the best offers from federal prosecutors.
Based on the information in the affidavit, those familiar with the process expect indictments within a few months.
We should know more as officials are expected to appear in court at 11:45 a.m. Tuesday at the North Justice Center in Fullerton. And in the evening, the Anaheim City Council meets during their regularly scheduled meeting.
One thing is clear:
Law enforcement is watching.
While it’s important to keep in mind that these FBI statements are allegations at this point, the fact that agents have been watching as we reported on an extremely odd sales process has renewed my faith in our rule of law and law enforcement’s ability to police the public’s expectation of honest services from its elected officials.
A few weeks ago, I had a very empty feeling about the future of open government as I watched Anaheim council members completely mock open government, even having a local judge back up their contention that the stadium sale had been a public process.
Watching the collective pass given to a secret stadium negotiation really made me really question whether open government exists anymore in California.
After last month’s city council meeting – where council members voted to pay a fine that nearly finalized the stadium sale – I kept playing the 1969 Peggy Lee tune, “Is that all there is?” about the chaotic nature of life.
“If that’s all there is, my friends,
Then let’s keep dancing.
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball.”
Today, those lyrics feel different.
My guess is there’s a bunch of insiders across Anaheim asking themselves the same question.
Is that all there is?
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