While an FBI corruption probe keeps prompting City Council calls to curtail the influence of Disneyland’s dominant campaign spending in Anaheim, the “Happiest Place on Earth” has been moving full steam ahead for the November elections.
So far, public campaign disclosures show Disney has moved a whopping $1.3 million into place ahead of the upcoming election for Anaheim mayor and City Council – an amount far more than anyone else has spent on the city’s elections in recent years.
That money has gone to Disney’s main political money vehicle in Anaheim, Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR), which in turn has started paying for slate mailers with names like “Firefighters Voter Guide,” “COPS Voter Guide,” and “California Senior Advocates League Voter Guide.”
It all comes amid an ongoing federal corruption probe into Anaheim politics, which culminated in allegations contained in an FBI affidavit filed in federal court on May 16 that addressed the influence of people close to Disney.
In the affidavit, the FBI alleged a consultant close to SOAR engaged in a “fraud scheme,” but it did not allege criminal activity by Disney or SOAR.
The FBI accused the consultant, Jeff Flint, of helping then-Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament commit fraud against two alleged victims: a mortgage lender, and a marijuana client whom they “solicited funds from…in exchange for influence over a proposed cannabis ordinance in the City of Anaheim.”
Flint is described as “Political Consultant 1” in the FBI document, which identifies him by providing the web address and description of Flint’s lobbying registration with the city and office location.
Ament pleaded guilty to the scheme and agreed to cooperate with federal agents.
Days after the FBI accusations were revealed in court, Flint told the LA Times he would be taking a leave of absence from his lobbying firm and denied wrongdoing. City records show all nine of his lobbying relationships in Anaheim were “terminated” in the second half of May, without specifying who initiated the terminations.
[Click here to read the FBI affidavit about Ament and Flint’s alleged fraud scheme.]
Ament faces up to 73 years in federal prison, though federal prosecutors agreed to recommend he get the shortest possible sentence if he continues cooperating with federal agents. His sentencing is scheduled for December.
[Read: Anaheim Chamber CEO Todd Ament Pleads Guilty to Fraud Charges, Could Face Decades in Federal Prison]
The affidavit also described a lobbyist for a prominent company – identified by the LA Times as Disneyland’s top Anahim lobbyist Carrie Nocella – co-writing the script that then-Mayor Harry Sidhu read aloud as his own comments at a City Council meeting when deciding on hundreds of millions in bond debt approvals.
Nocella declined to comment on the FBI’s allegations about her when reached by Voice of OC last week.
[Click here to read the FBI affidavit.]
Sidhu – whom the FBI affidavit disclosed is under investigation for tax fraud, witness tampering and planning to seek a $1 million bribe in campaign contributions from the Angels baseball team – resigned a week after the FBI probe became public in May. He denied wrongdoing through his lawyer.
[Read: How Did Disneyland’s Main Political Spending Vehicle Land in the Middle of an FBI Complaint?]
Disneyland’s press office declined to comment for this article, including whether Flint had worked directly for Disney, Instead, they referred comment to SOAR’s executive director, Jill Kanzler.
Kanzler then declined an interview request, and declined to describe the work Flint did for SOAR after multiple requests.
In a prepared statement to Voice of OC, Kanzler wrote that SOAR disclosed its campaign fundraising and spending as required by state and city laws.
“SOAR has always been transparent about its campaign fundraising and spending — following state and local campaign finance rules and regulations including 24-hour reporting when required and disclaimers disclosing major funders,” Kanzler wrote.
Disney and SOAR have long been the biggest players in Anaheim politics, said Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College who closely follows local elections.
“They are Anaheim politics. They dominate. And have for a long time. And I think the FBI has revealed what many of us have known for years, which is just their outsize influence in City Council elections,” she said.
“When you look at the decisions the council has made, Disney has gotten huge, huge giveaways from the city as the result of their investment in the council. And to the detriment of the people of Anaheim,” Balma said.
She pointed to the example of a parking structure the city built for Disney for over $100 million, which Disney gets to rent for $1 per year and make millions a year in profit from.
“If Anaheim was actually getting the fair market value from that, there would be [much more] money for parks and for after-school programs and for community services,” Balma said.
The FBI probe has fueled efforts by half of the City Council to reign in Disney’s influence and force more transparency around campaign money.
Late last month, the council deadlocked 3-to-3 on whether to require a 72-hour reporting window for all campaign contributions of $250 or more, along with a 12-month blackout on council members from voting on any item that would benefit a campaign contributor.
The deadlock meant the changes – spearheaded by Councilman Jose Moreno – were not approved. The measure was set to come back for another vote last week.
[Read: Anaheim City Council Deadlocks on Campaign Finance Reform Following FBI Corruption Probe]
In their latest disclosures required by state law, SOAR reported spending over $50,000 on a series of slate mailers, a type of political ad that – according to a local expert – confuses many voters about who is endorsing candidates.
The mailers purchased by SOAR are “Continuing the Republican Revolution,” “COPS Voter Guide,” “Educate Your Vote,” “Asian American Pacific Islander Voter Guide,” “California Senior Advocates League Voter Guide,” “Firefighters Voter Guide” and “No Party Preference Voter Guide.”
Slate mailers often are deceptive, said Balma, the political science professor.
“Slate mailers try to give – especially with local elections that aren’t partisan – indications of partisanship,” she said.
“Candidates buy space on those slate mailers, or organizations like SOAR buy space on the slate mailers for whoever they want. And they’re often deceptive.”
For example, Republican candidates’ names and photos can appear on slate mailers that read like they’re from Democrat groups, or vice versa, she noted.
“Organizations like SOAR will often try to play to both sides,” with Republican voters getting a slate mailer that appears to be from a Republican group supporting the candidate, while Democrat voters next door get a mailer that looks like it’s from a Democratic group supporting the same candidates,” Balma said. “It’s deceptive.”
Regarding such concerns, SOAR’s executive director noted in the prepared statement that slate mailers are common these days from a variety of candidates and political groups.
“Slates are common in elections, used by all political parties and campaigns from governor to city council. SOAR, like many PACs and candidates, uses slates to communicate with voters,” wrote Kanzler in her statement to Voice of OC.
“SOAR has been a part of the community since 2007 — long advocating for a strong resort district that generates the majority of Anaheim’s tax revenue and supports thousands of jobs.
The federal criminal complaint against Ament 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 group described it in a November 2020 phone call tapped by federal agents and quoted in the criminal complaint.
The recorded conversation later turned to the group’s work with SOAR, Disney’s main vehicle for campaign money into Anaheim elections.
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 SOAR spent on campaign ads for candidates backed by Disney and other resort-area businesses, public campaign disclosures show.
The discussion of the Disney money vehicle came up in the FBI wiretapped call from November 2020 described in the criminal complaint, when one of the alleged ringleaders discussed how it was too early to invite a newly-elected City Council member to understand how the “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 of his call with Flint.
“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 Flint, according to the complaint.
“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,” Flint replied.
The one candidate campaign that Disney-funded SOAR has reported donating to this year is Anaheim Councilman Avelino Valencia’s bid for state Assembly.
SOAR reported giving Valencia’s campaign $2,500 early May, just a few days before the FBI probe became public.
After the probe spurred a public uproar, Councilman Trevor O’Neil said he was returning some contributions from some of the entities and people referenced in the FBI affidavits, and Valencia said he had done so as well.
SOAR is among the entities referenced in the FBI affidavits.
In response to Voice of OC’s questions last week, Valencia said the contributions he returned were from Flint’s lobbying firm, FSB Core Strategies, and an Angels Baseball executive.
Disney – a major corporation with plenty of lawyers to help it know the law – has not been accused of any criminal activity in the FBI corruption probe thus far.
“I think what you end up with in Orange County is often, the folks who don’t have lots of lawyers working for them” are the ones who get swept up in corruption probes, Professor Balma said.
“And I think Disney – through SOAR – has figured out how to legally exploit our City Council rules in Anaheim,” she added.
“So they don’t need to break the law,” Balma concluded. “Because they control the law. And you see that with the reluctance to close the loopholes on campaign finance.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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