Just months ahead of the citywide elections, Anaheim’s moving a City Hall probe forward on suspect campaign money to local leaders, much of it connected to the Disneyland resort area interests.

The city’s own investigation comes amidst an FBI agent’s sworn court filing that claims that former Mayor Harry Sidhu unsuccessfully sought campaign bribes connected to the $150 million cash sale of Angel Stadium. 

A workplace investigations firm called the JL Group will head up the City of Anaheim-initiated probe, a decision made at an Aug. 9 City Council meeting, largely by a political majority that once followed Sidhu’s lead on voting for certain proposals until he resigned after the probe was made public.

The idea is to do a forensic audit of contracts with anyone who donated campaign money to Sidhu or current council members, to determine whether such money improperly influenced city business activities mentioned in FBI affidavits released in May. 

In one, the FBI alleges Sidhu shared city information with the Angels on the other end of the negotiating aisle and tried to ram the deal through in exchange for at least $1 million in campaign money from Angels executives — largely through independent expenditures that usually fund mailers and other political advertising in places like Anaheim.  

Sidhu, through his attorney Paul Meyer, has said he did nothing wrong. The former mayor isn’t facing any public charges as of Monday.

The stadium deal fell apart right after Sidhu resigned in late May.

Since then, council members have repeatedly said the city needs to hire a firm in an attempt to clear up the cloud surrounding City Hall, yet they couldn’t agree on how far the investigation should go. 

It comes as council members filed their most recent, state-required political fundraising disclosures this month, which show that some resort-friendly officials are returning donations to supporters of theirs who are now under the FBI’s microscope. 

Anaheim Mayor Pro Tem Trevor O’Neil listening to public comments at a city council meeting on Aug 9, 2022.

For instance, Councilmembers Gloria Ma’ae and Trevor O’Neil – who’s running for the open mayoral seat this November – both disclosed that they returned $2,200 donations from the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, whose former CEO Todd Ament pleaded guilty in July to federal fraud charges related to the probe.

On top of that, they both returned a $2,200 donation from Ament’s own consulting firm. O’Neil did so on May 21, less than a week after the probe came to light, the disclosures show. Ma’ae returned hers on June 30. 

That same day, O’Neil – a staunch supporter of the now-dead and illegal Angel Stadium sale to Angels Baseball team owner Arte Moreno – also returned a $1,700 donation from Angels Baseball President John Carpino and a $1,200 donation by team chairman Dennis Kuhl.

Ma’ae received $250 from Kuhl and her disclosures did not show her returning it.

Anaheim councilwoman Gloria Sahagún Ma’ae at a city council meeting on Aug 9, 2022.

O’Neil’s also returned a $2,200 donation he received from FSB Core Strategies, a political consulting firm that’s mentioned in the footnotes of one of the FBI affidavits and is headed by Jeff Flint, ​​who met or contacted city officials 15 times to discuss the stadium deal during negotiations, including three times with Sidhu in September 2020, according to lobbyist disclosures he signed.

At their meeting last Tuesday, council members also selected retired OC Superior Court Judge Clay Smith as the city’s “neutral” arbiter supervising the investigation. 

All council members but one, that is. 

Councilman Jose Moreno, one of the only critics of resort area subsidies and the stadium sale from the dais, was the lone vote against Smith, noting his submitted biography comprised only one page while other retired judges’ listed qualifications went on for several.

Moreno also said it was hard to tell based on Smith’s resume “what kind of cases did he review, how did he refer to those cases.”

Smith presided over “a broad range” of civil cases like family law “where he served for the last 9 years and spent 3 years as a Supervising Judge of the department, Presiding Judge of the court’s appellate division, and a special master for the Commission on Judicial Performance,” reads his submitted biography.

In it, Smith also focuses on legal costs:  “I am painfully aware of the high cost, both financial and emotional, of protracted litigation. I am energized by the opportunity to help litigants reach an earlier and less costly resolution.”

Indeed, Smith was the cheapest option that Tuesday night, according to city staff — a point of value for resort-friendly council members like Jose Diaz, who at one point during the meeting said, “The law judges, they all look the same to me. So I would suggest the cheapest one.”

“If you go with low, you get low,” Moreno said later.

Anaheim councilman Jose F. Moreno at a city council meeting on Aug 9, 2022.

Yet Moreno, the current council’s most outspoken advocate for citywide political and ethical reform since May, abstained from voting on the JL Group over what others on the dais pointed out to be a rather minor point.

Moreno said he decided not to cast a vote on JL Group’s hiring after discovering that one firm in the running, Brower Law Group, had once donated to his campaign. 

That night, he said he cast his non-decision in the “spirit” of a campaign finance reform proposal he spearheaded throughout this year, one that would, for example, require council members to step out of the room on votes impacting someone who donated to them in the past 12 months. His colleagues denied several iterations of the idea on several occasions this year.

City Attorney Robert Fabela told Moreno that the donation by Brower Law Group happened well beyond a year ago, and didn’t fall within Moreno’s proposed 12-month window. Moreno didn’t budge on stepping aside. 

Councilman Steve Faessel, a resort-friendly official who’s agreed with Moreno more often on some issues since May, called Moreno’s decision “perplexing,” as it revolved around a contender that “we’re not even apparently considering, to me.”

It was clear by that point of the discussion that most council members were disinclined toward Brower Law Group, which has an existing legal counsel relationship with the city, including on an insurance coverage dispute revolving around a $15 million Anaheim police chokehold death settlement.

“I would ask you to reconsider that, especially (because) you have been extraordinarily outspoken in bringing us to this point in time,” Faessel told Moreno from across the dais. 

“I’ve gone with this and, as a matter of fact, have agreed with you on more things than not, regarding everything we talked about in the last couple of months, but to have you back out from a decision at this point in time is very bothersome for me,” he said.

“Ethics is a tough thing,” Moreno responded, later adding, “as much as it pains me to have to step out of this vote, I will stick to my decision to abstain in the interest of fairness and openness, to walk the talk … what I’ve said for years about campaign finance.”

JL Group will also seek to find out whether city staff members were involved in the illegal and unethical activity alleged in the probe, and whether any serial communications or meetings violating state open meetings law occurred, according to the city’s request for proposals. 

Faessel made a pitch for Hanson Bridgett, another contender group which advised the public agency owner of the San Francisco 49ers’ home field in Santa Clara, known as Levi’s Stadium. 

The firm, by its own written account, advised the local stadium authority on “high profile” disputes around city officials who received campaign money from the 49ers and often met with team officials following closed session meetings on litigation and stadium real estate. Brower Law Group also listed experience with Santa Clara and a sports franchise. 

“They have special knowledge of sports teams, perhaps, and certainly that’s what we’re dealing with here,” Faessel said.

To that, O’Neil replied, “I agree that’s helpful, but not necessarily what this investigation is all about.”

The JL Group’s principal and co-founder, Jeffrey Love, made the case for his firm in front of council members on Tuesday.

“We take a look at these cases at 30,000 feet at first, and then we kind of come down and hit the issues that we think are important initially. And that would be part of the communications piece that our firm would have,” Love said.

The firm, in its proposal, listed experience with what it considered to be related issues across the state, saying the firm investigated public officials in Montebello, Barstow, La Mesa, and the Ventura County District Attorney’s office. 

“But it’s hard to know, we have to have a very refined scope of investigation,” Love told council members.

An initial scope of work was approved with JL Group’s selection, said city spokesman Mike Lyster in an email response to questions on Monday. 

“As for next steps, we expect JL Group to sit down with the neutral administrator and develop a work plan for the investigation and audit,” Lyster wrote. “We also expect briefings for the City Council and the opportunity for the Council to provide some additional direction.”

Love couched his firm’s costs at somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000 in public money.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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