“Look here, buddy.”
In a public meeting, those aren’t the first words you’d expect to hear directed at a sitting council member from someone wearing a suit, much less a municipal Chamber of Commerce leader.
But that’s what Anaheim Chamber of Commerce Chairman Ross Mccune said to Anaheim City Councilmember Jose Moreno during a public meeting in December 2019, when Moreno questioned a taxpayer subsidy for luxury hotel upgrades that Mccune spoke in support of that month.
To some, there was perhaps no greater indication than those three words that the politically-active Chamber of Commerce, and the powerful interests orbiting the group, had reached the apex of their power in Anaheim – pushing resort-friendly policies and scoring contracts for the chamber while dismissing critics and dissenters, even those with voting powers.
To observers, the Chamber of Commerce had become much more than a typical Chamber of Commerce – a vehicle for power and influence.
Now, after an FBI corruption probe turned City Hall on its head in May, watchdogs and former city leaders are searching their own institutional memory for when, exactly, they say Anaheim lost its way.
Some first saw the signs in the mid-aughts, when the local entertainment giant, Disney, formed its now-infamous political fundraising board in 2007 – known as “Support Our Anaheim Resort,” or S.O.A.R. – to oppose housing in the resort area.
With a seat saved for the local Chamber of Commerce CEO, Todd Ament.
From there, a group of Anaheim watchdogs and experts say things started to change around town, with a catalyst in the Chamber, which a May 16 FBI affidavit filed in federal court ties to the alleged insider sale of Angel Stadium nearly two decades later.
A common type of civic group whose model goes back to colonial times – brokering the relations between government and capitalism – had, in Anaheim, moved on from promoting local businesses over the years to become a full-time student of power, observers noted.
And over the next decade, the Chamber, ideally meant to fight City Hall on things like signage and code restrictions affecting entrepreneurial activity in town, was instead pushing public land deals and taxpayer resources to the city’s entertainment and tourism draws, according to critics and a set of written FBI agent affidavits.
A Chamber Transitions into a “Political Machine.”
In 2012, public speakers shook with rage at council meetings over a Chamber-backed, $158 million tax subsidy that city officials granted to resort hoteliers, one of whom was at one point a Chamber of Commerce board member, William O’Connell, and a board member at S.O.A.R.
Some longtime Anaheim residents note the Chamber’s “small-town mindset” ushered in a golden age for business owners between the late 1980s and early 2000s but lamented that the group eventually morphed into a brazen “political machine.”
It became “all about tourism and bringing the mega businesses into Anaheim. Businesses that can help themselves,” said Bill Taormina, a wealthy, longtime Anaheim entrepreneur who was once part of the scene as a chamber board member until he said he left in the late 1990s.
Businesses that “don’t need the chamber of commerce,” said Taormina, who together with his family have collectively given thousands of dollars to resort-backed candidates over recent years, according to a review of campaign finance data held by the City of Anaheim.
Toward the turn of the last decade, namely with the 2018 election of Mayor Harry Sidhu and his resort-backed council majority, residents watched the Chamber of Commerce gain more influence than ever before, at least in recent memory.
“The chamber was literally running the city,” said former Anaheim city manager Chris Zapata, who was fired in 2020 for raising concerns about subsidies for the resort industry, to Voice of OC in May.
When the FBI that month revealed its Anaheim corruption probe, Zapata claimed publicly that Ament was the true leader, who allegedly fed Sidhu written statements to read at meetings and relied on the city’s first Indian American Sikh mayor to be the face of what the FBI called in its affidavit a “small cadre” of powerful interests, under which city affairs were “tightly” controlled.
But it all came down when the federal corruption inquiry came to light last month, in the form of the agent’s written affidavits. Shortly after, Sidhu resigned from office and Ament pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges relating to the investigation.
The chamber boss who once shoveled dirt with city officials and business figures for photo-ops must now testify for trials and pay nearly $250,000 in back taxes.
It’s casting attention on the more than 100-year-old organization Ament once ran since at least the early aughts, in a tenure that eventually led to his cooperation with the FBI probe in September of 2021, according to the affidavit attached to Ament’s criminal complaint.
Not so at the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
Voice of OC found old lists showing the names of former chamber directors through Wayback Machine, an internet archive, up to August of 2020.
Chamber staff under the new CEO, Laura Cunningham – whose appointment was formally announced roughly a month before the FBI affidavit came to light – won’t respond to Voice of OC requests for a current Board of Directors list.
What’s in the Chamber’s Cards?
There’s also the question of what now happens to the chamber’s apparent rhythm with City Hall.
In recent years, the chamber scored lucrative, at times noncompetitive, contracts with City Hall – including a promotion program funded with $500,000 in federal COVID bailout money in 2020.
In response to questions, Anaheim city spokesman Mike Lyster said the city currently has no active contracts with the chamber.
“Any that previously existed had already expired.”
That includes a no-bid $425,000 contract the chamber received in 2019, spearheaded by Sidhu, to promote business throughout the city – a core job of every chamber of commerce, regardless of city funding. And the chamber-created Anaheim First group was given a $250,000 contract to conduct a citywide study on neighborhood needs.
The silence from Chamber staff and its Board of Directors make it tough to paint a definitive picture of the chamber’s true shot-callers through the years.
Voice of OC also reached out to former chamber board directors, most of whom did not respond.
Mccune, reached for comment on two different occasions, declined but said a statement would come at some point in the future.
Annual financial disclosures to the IRS include a roster of the chamber’s Board of Directors for each given year. But the Chamber’s tax disclosures made public by the IRS only go from 2015 to 2019.
ProPublica, a large investigative news nonprofit, has a separate national database of tax disclosures for U.S. nonprofits. The Chamber tax filings in that database go back to 2005, offering an even wider window into the chamber’s leadership over the last two decades than the IRS’s publicly available records.
In 2005, the chamber’s annual Form 990 filing listed three CEOs for that same year, each compensated to varying degrees.
That included Mike Neben, who was paid $355 dollars in total that period for his work, according to the tax filing, and was referenced by longtime city watchdogs in interviews as Ament’s predecessor.
The second CEO listed was Frank Jacobson, listed as an “interim” CEO and paid $13,000 in total for his work that year, according to the 2005 IRS filing.
The third CEO listed was Ament, who was paid close to $70,000 for his work for the organization that year, according to the IRS filing.
The next tax year, the chamber only listed one CEO in its 2006 filing.
Chamber Leadership Over the Years
Wayback Machine, the public internet archive, also provides a list of former board directors from old versions of the chamber’s own website up to July of 2020, when that page stopped showing up on the website, according to the site’s records.
A review of available records provides a window into the board’s most frequent, long-running, and prominent members – and what types of interests they represent.
Across the available records, Voice of OC took a sample of what Chamber of Commerce leadership looked like over the past several years.
Some of these current and past Chamber board members worked for or were affiliated with the city’s major political influencers – resort interests like Disney and S.O.A.R.
Others publicly pushed resort-friendly policies.
Some of these board members represented local Anaheim businesses like taxicabs, law firms, and ethnic grocers.
None of the individuals described below in the chamber leadership over the years were named in the FBI affidavits. None have been tied by the FBI to the corruption allegations in the affidavits.
One frequent name in the tax filings was McCune, who served as the chamber’s Board of Directors Chair from at least 2015 through 2019, according to the available tax filings.
McCune is the owner and president of Calisteal Building, a commercial construction and general contracting company.
His company contributed $2,000 to Sidhu’s election campaign in July 2019, according to city campaign finance records.
At the December 2019 council meeting, Mccune spoke in support of efforts to give the Anaheim Hotel a luxury upgrade, an endeavor made possible through the controversial use of taxpayer subsidies.
That brought him into the heated exchange with council member Moreno during the December council meeting that year. Moreno questioned the project’s financing structure and challenged Mccune directly over the use of non-union labor, as so many of the project’s supporters had invoked the topic of union labor.
“Look here, buddy. I spent 18 years with a union shop. I put a lot of union people to work,” McCune said, taking Moreno’s questions during the meeting.
McCune declined to comment for this story when reached by a reporter on the phone.
Another longtime director was Larry Slagle.
While the taxicab industry declined, Slagle’s company, Yellow Cab of Orange County, managed to hang on in Anaheim. In the past, he’s credited the resort area for its vitality.
“Orange County is not a taxicab town. It’s not a public transit town. But it’s changing, little by little. We have survived mainly because of the tourist convention market that has developed here in Anaheim. When we first started it was very seasonal, primarily in the summertime. Then as the Anaheim Convention Center and Disneyland have grown, as well as the surrounding tourist attractions, it has allowed us to operate at a reasonable base 12 months out of the year,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992.
In a June 22 phone interview with Voice of OC, Slagle said the chamber was a way to become involved with the community.
“I know it seems like things have turned the other way,” Slagle said. “It seems like it has taken more of a political twist lately than it has in the past. Typically, that’s not the way we have operated in the past.”
Like Taormina, another successful Anaheim businessman, and others, Slagle remembers a shift in direction under Ament’s leadership.
“It became not quite as event or business-oriented … I think Todd’s realization on his part was that he could probably do better for himself representing some of these big businesses better than the organization itself,” he said.
Slagle sat on the Chamber of Commerce between at least 2015 and 2019, according to tax filings. Slagle was listed as the vice-chair of finance for the chamber’s board between 2015-2017 and the vice-chair of economic development for 2018 and 2019.
Slagle was part of a group back in 2010 that controlled Support Our Anaheim Resort Political Action – a political action committee funded by Disney – to help elect former council members Kris Murray, Gail Eastman, and Tom Tait.
Tait later flipped and became a public resort critic.
The taxi entrepreneur also personally contributed hundreds of dollars each to the campaigns of Former Mayor Harry Sidhu and Councilmembers Trevor O’Neil and Stephen Faessel over various election cycles between 2018-2021, according to city campaign finance records.
Jeff Farano is listed on tax filings as a past chairman for the chamber’s board of directors, on the board from at least 2015-2019.
The tax filings do not clarify if the board member is Jeff Farano, Sr. or Jeff Farano, Jr.
Before that, his Linkedin page lists him as working as general counsel for Tait & Associates, a family-owned engineering firm whose CEO is former Anaheim mayor Tom Tait, from 2005-2010.
Farano, Sr. contributed $500 to Sidhu’s election campaign on March 26, 2019 and another $500 to Sidhu’s campaign on Jan. 31, 2020, according to public campaign finance records on the city’s website.
He did not respond to a request for comment.
Other SA Recycling employees have poured thousands of dollars in Sidhu’s campaigns between 2019-2021, the campaign finance records show.
SA Recycling itself contributed $2,100 to Councilman Jose Diaz’s campaign on Oct. 17, 2020 and $1,500 to former Councilman Jordan Brandman’s campaign on Oct. 11, 2018, according to the city campaign finance records.
Jeff Farano, Jr. is a lawyer for Rutan & Tucker, a law firm, where he specializes in land use and regulatory issues.
Farano, Jr. has also contributed to Sidhu’s election campaigns in recent years, according to city campaign finance records.
He contributed $500 to Sidhu’s campaign on March 27, 2019 and $1,000 on Feb. 7, 2020, according to those records.
William ‘Bill’ O’Connell is CEO of O’Connell Hotels and Hospitality and is a managing partner for four Anaheim resort located hotels.
O’Connell is also publicly listed on the group’s website as a current board member for Visit Anaheim, a marketing group that promotes Anaheim’s tourist and resort industry, along with Anaheim City Manager Jim Vanderpool.
O’Connell has also previously served as chair of that board.
He’s served on many boards, including the OC Human Relations Council and S.O.A.R, according to his bio on the O’Connell Hotels and Hospitality website.
S.O.A.R’s website currently lists O’Connell as an advisory committee member, fellow chamber colleagues Slagle and Cunningham, and former council members Gail Eastman and Kris Murray.
According to tax filings, O’Connell has served on the Chamber’s board of directors since 2018-2019, at least, and has served as the board’s vice chair of finance.
He received the Chamber of Commerce’s lifetime achievement award in 2007.
William O’Connell III
Tax filings also show a William O’Connell III serving on the chamber’s board of directors since at least 2015-2017.
O’Connell III is also a hotelier and is listed as the General Manager for the Best Western Plus Stovall’s Inn since 2007 on O’Connell’s Hotels and Hospitality website.
Before that, he spent a couple of years as a teacher in the Garden Grove Unified School District. According to the website, he has also served on the Chamber’s board of directors.
Voice of OC reached out to both O’Connells and left each a voicemail request for comment for this story but the voicemails went unreturned.
Tony Serna, another board director from at least 2015 through 2019, has been the principal owner of Agency 51, an advertising agency, since 2003, according to his Linkedin page.
Serna describes building brands as one of his strengths on his Linkedin page and lists The Walt Disney Company and Visit Anaheim as part of his ad agency’s clientele. The agency has also promoted Anaheim First on its YouTube page.
According to Serna’s LinkedIn page, Serna worked for The Walt Disney Company for almost five years in the 1990s, predominantly as an advertising & marketing copywriter, and is a Disney Spirit Award winner.
Serna has contributed hundreds to the campaigns of Former Mayor Harry Sidhu and Councilmembers Trevor O’Neil and Stephen Faessel over various election cycles between 2018-2021, according to public campaign finance records on the city’s website.
He also contributed $100 to Councilmember Jose Diaz’s campaign on Oct. 17, 2020, according to the city’s campaign finance records.
Serna did not respond to a request for comment.
Peter Agarwal served on the chamber’s board from 2015 through 2019, according to the chamber’s tax filings.
He was named “Anaheim Business Champion of the Year” by the Chamber of Commerce in 2012.
Agarwal was also the first member appointed to the Orange County ethics commission when it was formed back in 2017 – the pick of former county Supervisor Shawn Nelson.
In 2017, Voice of OC reported that Agarwal falsely claimed, on his ethics commissioner application, that he served on the governing board of a national association for members of boards of directors. Agarwal later acknowledged in an interview that he’s never served on the board.
The ethics commission is responsible for enforcing the county’s campaign finance limits, lobbying law, gift ban, and code of ethics.
Attempts to reach Agarwal for comment were unsuccessful.
Alicia Valadez, an Anaheim-based government relations and leasing manager for Northgate Markets, served as a director on the chamber’s board from 2017-2019, according to tax filings.
Valadez is currently president of the Paramount Chamber of Commerce.
Unlike the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce’s website, the Paramount Chamber of Commerce website lists the names of its board of directors and their phone numbers as well as pictures of each of each board member.
Valadez did not respond to a phone request for comment.
Mark Himmelstein served on the chamber board between at least 2015 and 2019 and also served on the chamber’s legislative committee, according to the tax filings.
He’s an attorney and partner for Newmeyer Dillion Legal Firm based in Newport Beach, specializing in construction, real estate, business, and insurance litigation.
Himmelstein also sits on the executive committee of the board of directors for the Building Industry Association of Orange County, according to his bio on his law firm’s website.
Himmelstein did not return requests for comment via email or voicemail.
According to tax filings, Tracy Nowakowski served on the board of directors for the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce from at least 2016 to 2019.
Nowakowski is the president of L&N Costume Service, described as a “family-owned commercial laundry with 48 employees servicing all of Orange County,” according to her Linkedin page.
Nowakowski did not respond to a voicemail request for comment.
What is a Chamber of Commerce?
A chamber of commerce, on paper, is an organization representing a collection of businesses, unified to amplify their voice in government policymaking. A broker for the business community at City Hall.
Gary Richardson, a professor of economics at UC Irvine, said in a phone interview last week that Chambers of Commerce in the U.S. go back hundreds of years to colonial times.
“Chambers of commerce have for hundreds of years just advocated for rules and laws that would help business prosper. That’s the main thing they do. That’s the main thing they’ve always done,” Richardson said.
He said their role hasn’t changed since then.
Richardson said it is not unusual for a particular Chamber of Commerce to hold great influence in their city and that there are about 5,000 of them in the U.S.
“They can be very influential,” he said. “Businesses have to work within the framework of the laws of the society. The government creates laws. The businesses want to have an influence on that.”
Richardson said chambers of commerce have always promoted candidates that support policies that will benefit their members and called them one of the biggest lobbying groups in the country.
“The chamber can be a big player in local politics,” he said.
When asked about Anaheim’s Chamber of Commerce and the FBI’s allegations against Ament, Richardson said he hadn’t followed the headlines but wasn’t surprised.
“It’s not unusual to hear that people are trying to do something like this. What might be unusual is that it succeeded – that they actually got a lot of influence,” he said. “It’s a little bit unusual that a single lobbying group could get so much power anywhere.”
Richardson said most chambers of commerce across the country are operating “above board,” but “any organization can be corrupted if corrupt people get into leadership.”
The Anaheim chamber dropped the mission of advocating for business interests a long time ago if you ask Bill Taormina, a wealthy, longtime Anaheim entrepreneur who, throughout his life, dabbled in philanthropy on top of things like laundry and waste hauling businesses.
Taormina says he should know – he was on the chamber’s Board of Directors until the late 1990s.
He likens his own exit from the chamber to Anaheim’s exit of a golden age.
“It was truly a small-town mindset then, 1985-2005 — then it eroded after that,” he said. “Folks would help each other and the chamber was social and economic. It was just wonderful. Now? I don’t know what it is now. It became nothing but a political machine.”
Taormina wasn’t alone in that feeling.
Cynthia Ward, a resident and former staff aide to former council member Denise Barnes, said the chamber of commerce in Anaheim has transformed into something completely different than what it was intended to be.
“In the earlier days, they were all about just promoting Anaheim as a good place to do business,” Ward said, adding that things started to change after Todd Ament went to work for the chamber.
“Instead, they kind of became the hammer in the toolbox for City Hall where Todd Ament can go out and do the things elected officials didn’t want to get their hands dirty doing and in exchange, they were getting bigger and bigger contracts from the city,” Ward said.
On July 1, the 57-year-old Ament pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges for defrauding a cannabis company, fraudulently obtaining a COVID-relief business loan worth roughly $62,000, lying to a bank while seeking a loan for a $1.5 million home in the San Bernardino Mountains, and filing false tax returns. He’s scheduled for sentencing on Dec. 9.
Tom Tait, former Republican Anaheim Mayor, also noted a change in the chamber after Ament took leadership.
Tait said the chamber of commerce used to operate like others in the country when Mike Neben was its president, who he described as a “small business focused” man.
“Nothing like it is today. It really probably changed with Todd Ament who transformed it into a political animal,” he said in a phone interview last week.
Tait said he served on the Anaheim City Council between 1995-2004 and then as mayor between 2010 to 2018.
“It was a different chamber by the time I came back than what it was when I left,” he said.
Tait also points to the formation of Disney’s S.O.A.R political action committee helping the chamber gain power.
“I’m guessing the amount of Disney money that Disney started to spend on campaigns and things like that is when the Chamber’s influence grew,” he said.
“The rise of the Chamber’s prominence coincided with a massive amount of money spent particularly on campaigns.”
Tait said the Chamber supported his initial campaign but quickly turned against him after he started to call out special interests in the city.
“I thought the chamber – and it seemed intentionally – were labeling me as anti-business because I didn’t agree with their special interest subsidies but I think (being) actually pro-business is having a level playing field for everybody,” he said.
To Taormina, a chamber of commerce should be there for entrepreneurs with issues over Conditional Use Permits or city regulations that present a barrier to things like a business’ signage and operations.
“That’s what the chamber should be advocating for. But very little, if any, of that took place. Instead, it was all about tourism and bringing the mega businesses into Anaheim. Businesses that can help themselves. They don’t need the chamber of commerce,” he said.
“When the new mindset took over, it just wasn’t for me.”
Brandon Pho 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 @photherecord.
Hosam Elattar 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 @ElattarHosam.