When federal authorities revealed their wide-ranging probe of local corruption in Orange County, they went public with far more detail than they’re required to – including exact timeframes of when they were wiretapping phones of high-profile political players.
That kind of detail – contained in a search warrant affidavit against Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu and a mortgage fraud complaint against his once-ally, Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament – could very well get more witnesses to come forward, according to legal experts.
“[It was] hardly necessary to load up the complaint with factual allegations,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, a former federal prosecutor who handled public corruption cases and now teaches law at Chapman University.
“So it’s certainly plausible to believe that what you’re trying to do is what they say, ‘Heat up the street.’ ”
He said that’s when people learn details of an investigation, get worried about whether they could get in trouble, and agree to talk to investigators.
“When people know that an investigation is underway, and they’ve got somebody like Ament cooperating, and Ament is probably telling the FBI everything he knows, and they’ve also had this wiretap up, then people get worried that they may be in jeopardy, and perhaps they will want to cooperate,” Rosenthal said.
“Or at a minimum – one of the investigative tactics that’s frequently used – in fact, I did it when I was involved in public corruption investigations… you appear expectedly at somebody’s home, usually in the evening, and you start interviewing them, and you start confronting them with things that you know, and they may get nervous, and they may cooperate because they think it’s in their interest to do this.”
Federal agents revealed major details about targets they’re examining who thus far haven’t been publicly charged with crimes, along with date ranges of wiretaps on particular phones, and when certain political players were secretly recording meetings on behalf of the FBI.
For example, the federal filings describe wiretapping a political consultant’s phone from June 24 through July 23, 2019, and described the consultant in such a way that led many to believe it was Melahat Rafiei, who later confirmed she was indeed that person. She has denied wrongdoing.
Federal agents wrote they have also tapped multiple other phones as part of their probe, which captured conversations that included Sidhu and political consultants, according to the public filings.
The FBI has “intercepted communications over multiple Target Phones” after obtaining court-approved warrants, FBI Agent Brian Adkins wrote in both of his public affidavits.
David Slansky, another former prosecutor, also says it’s unusual to see so much public detail at this stage.
“It’s true that in general you don’t see this level of detail in an affidavit and request in support of an arrest warrant, or in a request for a search warrant,” said Slanksy, who teaches criminal law at Stanford University.
He said it’s plausible the intent was in part to get more people to come forward with information, as well as getting a court’s seal of approval that they had strong evidence supporting their investigative steps.
“And one more possibility is that they wanted to protect against possible attacks in the press by targets of the investigation, by making public how strong the basis was for the steps that they were taking,” Slansky said.
Federal authorities tend to keep their investigations as secret as possible until they feel they really need to make it public, Rosenthal said.
“If you’re intercepting conversations that are yielding important evidence, you keep your mouth shut, you don’t disclose,” he said.
But he said there’s an exception when a probe needs to be revealed to prevent harm to a victim.
In this case, the FBI filings became public just as the city was about to follow through on selling Angel Stadium to the Angels – a deal the FBI alleges was corrupted by the then-mayor in the hopes of getting $1 million to help his re-election.
“It is unusual to disclose a warrant application, except in the course of litigating a pending case, much less give it to the state Attorney General’s Office,” Rosenthal said.
“But if there is a way to prevent damage to the victim – and in this case the victim is kind of the people of the state of California, you should do so,” he said.
Once the secret – or “covert” – phase of the investigation is over, federal investigators then try to interview as many people as they can, according to Rosenthal.
“And you try to use what you know to leverage additional cooperation” from people, he added.
Spokespeople for the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
Sidhu has not been publicly charged with any crimes, though federal prosecutors have the option of secretly indicting people.
The mayor resigned the week after the FBI affidavits became public and has denied committing any crimes through his attorney.
But one of his close allies – Ament, who led the Chamber of Commerce – agreed to cooperate with the FBI, and pleaded guilty to four felonies – including fraud – in exchange for federal prosecutors recommending a lighter sentence, according to his plea agreement.
Rosenthal noted that the affidavits allege a lot of crimes against people who haven’t been charged, and highlights certain ways of influencing city hall – such as secret meetings of a self-described “cabal” – that sound entirely legal in and of themselves.
“There’s something very odd here. Because I have never read an affidavit that talks about things like ‘cabals.’ A ‘cabal’ is not a legal concept. In fact, there’s nothing illegal about lobbyists influencing municipal governments,” Rosenthal said.
“They do it all the time, they meet all the time, they have meetings in hotels, they talk about who to invite. A great deal of this stuff described in the affidavit is actually a lot of smoke and very little fire,” he continued.
“So what’s going on there? All I can say is presumably there is more evidence than has been disclosed.”
“Either the conduct of this investigation is troubling, for wrecking somebody’s political career without actually producing a criminal charge. Or there’s much more that we don’t yet know,” Rosenthal said.
“And maybe I’m being naive or cynical…But I prefer to believe that there’s more we don’t know. Because if this was it – if they’ve done all this just to convict Ament, and inflict a lot of collateral damage in the process – that would be quite irresponsible.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.