Anaheim City Council members are reexamining the influence of special interest groups – and the millions of dollars pumped into city elections – as the dais continues dealing with the fallout of an FBI corruption investigation into the city.

Increasing calls for investigations and contract audits stem from Mayor Harry Sidhu and former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament’s business dealings throughout the city – including secretly recorded conversations – that FBI agents allege show a pattern of corruption and cronyism in the city. 

In the weeks since Sidhu resigned and Ament was charged with mortgage fraud, city council members have been forced to ask themselves some tough questions publicly  – leading to discussions of campaign finance reform and an audit of contracts spearheaded not just by Sidhu, but all contracts connected to what FBI agents, in their affidavits, describe as a special interest “cadre.”

This means the role of political action committees, like the Chamber of Commerce or Disney’s main political spending vehicle, Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR), are likely to get much more public focus. 

[Read: FBI Reveals What Many Anaheim Residents Felt For Years, City Hall is Run By The Chamber of Commerce]

On Tuesday, Councilman Jose Moreno spearheaded campaign finance reform efforts that could prohibit council members from voting on an item from campaign donors or large corporations who bankrolled independent expenditures in their favor for up to one year. 

“We can’t prohibit [people] giving money to PACs … but they have a choice. If they would like to contribute because they believe so in democracy, then they should know they cannot expect anything in return because the council member will have to recuse themselves,” Moreno said during Tuesday’s public council meeting. 

Council members voted 5-0 to bring back the campaign finance discussion at its next meeting and to put out bids for an outside investigative firm to examine all contracts voted on by city council members that benefit some of the entities wrapped up in the FBI corruption probe, like the Chamber of Commerce. 

Councilman Jose Diaz was absent from Tuesday’s council meeting. 

Sidhu’s lawyer, Paul Meyer sent a statement to reporters ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, saying the former mayor’s campaign contributions are lawful. 

“A fair and impartial review of all campaign contributions related to Harry Sidhu will confirm every contribution was properly accounted for and in compliance with campaign finance requirements. An examination of past practices of the former mayors of Anaheim and elsewhere will confirm this as well,” Meyer wrote. 

Moreno’s proposal is modeled after the Levine Act, which limits appointed boards from voting on items connected to campaign donors. 

But, he’s proposing extending the recusal for up to one year after contributions of $250 or more have been made directly to a campaign or through an independent expenditure controlled by a political action committee. 

In Anaheim, that means the Chamber of Commerce and SOAR could impact their influence. 

While Sidhu’s former council majority voted to bring the campaign finance reform discussion back at their next meeting, some had qualms about applying the recusal rule to PACs, while others had issues with the 12-month recusal period. 

“I’m also troubled by the burden we’re placing on candidates,” Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae said during the meeting. “Candidates cannot control the activities of PACs or independent expenditures.” 

Ma’ae, who sat on SOAR’s advisory board and was appointed by the Sidhu-led majority last September, questioned if Moreno’s recusal proposal would apply to the political action committees themselves or to the individual donors who give to the committees. 

[Read: Anaheim Council’s Appointment of a Resort Ally Stirs Calls of Rushed, Politicized Process]

“To say that removing this single form of expressing support removes all opportunity for pay for play is unrealistic. Rather, it targets certain types of groups and supporters over others. And I also wonder what this type of ordinance does for the future of Anaheim if we limit donors in Anaheim,” she said. 

Councilman Steve Faessel said while he agrees with nearly all the changes proposed by Moreno, he’s not sure about the one-year recusal period. 

“The one year requirement, I’m still stuck on that. So almost everything that has been presented here and discussed, I would be likely supportive of,” Faessel said.

He also said it would be tough for a city council member to know if a PAC has supported them because the campaign finance disclosures often come out months after the money’s spent. 

“I had no idea what the PACs contributed to me until after the campaign, when I got my (form) 570s,” Faessel said. 

Moreno said the city clerk’s office could put together a list of political action committees  detailing their spending throughout Anaheim – similar to the city’s lobbyist reports. 

Councilman Avelino Valencia – who was part of the Sidhu majority, but began breaking away when state officials said the Angel Stadium land sale was illegal under a violation of the state Surplus Land Act last year – wondered if the proposal could be abused. 

“What would prevent a third party – if this ordinance is passed – from running a small independent expenditure in support of a candidate in order to prevent that candidate from participating in the policy process?” he asked. 

City Attorney Rob Fabela noted that “there’s nothing in the ordinance that addressed that directly.” 

But, Fabela said, “It seems to me that’s something that could be controlled by the council member because they can return it.” 

Valencia also proposed a mandatory disclosure of direct campaign contributions of $250 or more within 24 hours of receiving them – but it’s unclear whether that will be part of the next discussion on campaign finance reform. 

Meanwhile, acting Mayor Trevor O’Neil said the issue boils down to transparency – not campaign finance reform. 

“Transparency is really the key and the public needs to know where contributions are coming from and who’s received them prior to the vote and there are gaps there,” O’Neil said. 

He also expressed doubts about the proposed rules surrounding political action committees.

“Since candidates have no control on how [PACs] spend the money, it’s wholly impractical or impossible to regulate a recusal based on that because a committee and its donors exercised their First Amendment right to free speech to support a candidate,” O’Neil said. 

He also said big money in politics isn’t necessarily a negative thing. 

“I further reject the notion that campaign money is patently a bad thing. There’s a considerable argument that can be made that higher spending in politics helps voters identify candidates, place them on an ideological scale and connect them to stances on the issues. sure money can make races less equal, but it can make them more equal,” O’Neil said. 

Moreno later shot back:

“For those who believe money doesn’t matter in elections, just look at your social media right now — how inundated is our social media with media buys?,” he said. “Money buys the marketing to get you to think of a candidate in a certain way.” 

Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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