As Anaheim residents call for reforms on the heels of an FBI corruption probe of City Hall, leaders across the political spectrum are set to gather Thursday for a public forum on the city’s perceived cronyism, hosted by a libertarian think tank and sponsored by the Epoch Times.

[Click here for more information about the forum and how to RSVP.]

“Corruption is a bipartisan problem. And I hope to get across on Thursday that these problems need multi-partisan solutions,” said Jose Moreno, a current Anaheim City Council member and Democrat who has been critical of the closed-door way City Hall has made key decisions.

Moreno’s scheduled participation in the upcoming forum stirred some controversy, with several fellow progressives criticizing him.

“Hopefully [we] can bring people across the aisles together in unity to demand a transparent process … and to demand ethical and transparent governance,” he said, adding he’s happy to join any forums about Anaheim and government accountability.

“It’s wonderful when Disney and others get to build 4-star hotels or build a resort district [with major taxpayer subsidies], but it tends to wipe out smaller players who don’t have that type of capacity,” said Will Swaim, president of the conservative and libertarian California Policy Center, who is moderating the event.

The event, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, features a Democrat – Moreno – and three Republicans: former Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, former Orange County Supervisor and state Sen. John Moorlach, and former Lake Forest Mayor Dwight Robinson.

“It’s ironic that it tends to be a conservative Republican panel and organizations that are interested in organizing a forum focused on crony capitalism and how it has such a corrupting influence on our democracy – given that a majority of the council … are Republican,” Moreno added.

The forum comes as residents and Moreno have been routinely calling for reforms to limit the influence of big money in city decisions, which so far have been rejected by the City Council on deadlocked 3-to-3 votes.

It’s the first known public forum about Anaheim corruption in the wake of an ongoing federal corruption probe into the city’s politics, which burst into public view in mid-May.

Those revelations included corruption allegations against then-Mayor Harry Sidhu, the former head of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, and an influential consultant close to Disney’s main political spending group.

In the wake of the probe’s unveiling, the mayor resigned, the city scrapped plans to sell Angel Stadium, and Todd Ament – the Chamber’s former CEO – pleaded guilty to multiple counts of fraud.

Ament is facing up to 73 years in prison, though federal prosecutors agreed to recommend a shorter sentence if Ament continues to cooperate with them. Sidhu hasn’t been publicly charged with any crimes as of Tuesday.

Disney’s Influence on City Politics

Anaheim has a long history of City Council members getting elected with major money from Disney and other wealthy interests, and then approving massive taxpayer subsidies for those very same interests, said former mayor Tait, a Republican.

“My belief is that these big corporate subsidies, in the end, don’t work – but also are anti-free market, and very unfair to everybody else who doesn’t get a subsidy and has to compete against somebody who does,” Tait said in a phone interview.

“And it’s not what government should do – is somehow say that this entity or this company gets a subsidy and everyone else does not,” he added, pointing to the city giving Disney a 45-year exemption to paying ticket taxes, on top of other city subsidies.

“How does that happen?” Tait asked. “Let alone hundreds of millions of dollars of direct subsidies to build hotels that I believe would be built anyway.”

In the last city election in 2020, Disney spent at least $1.5 million to get its preferred candidates elected to the Anaheim City Council – all of whom rejected a gate tax proposal last month. 

[Read: ​​Disney’s $1.5 Million Spending Pits Resort-Friendly Anaheim Council Candidates Against Subsidy Critics]

Disney and other resort interests are gearing up to do the same thing this upcoming November election. 

[Read: Disney Revs Up Campaign Spending in Anaheim Amid Calls to Curb Their Influence After FBI Allegations]

Corruption Probe Attracts Bipartisan Attention

Thursday’s forum is sponsored by the Epoch Times, a right-wing newspaper affiliated with the Falun Gong religious movement that has substantially raised its profile in Orange County news coverage and in outreach to readers. 

The Epoch Times sponsorship, and the involvement of a Democratic Anaheim council member, highlights the complex political cross section that’s critical of the way Anaheim has done business.

“I’m happy to be a part of any forum that’s interested in talking about matters pertaining to Anaheim … and as it relates to open and transparent government and accountability,” said Moreno, who’s faced pushback from fellow progressives for joining the forum.

“I give this group organizing the effort credit that they’re willing to shine the light of crony capitalism and the corrupting influence on politics, regardless of whether it’s members of their own party or ideological leanings,” he added.

Members of the newly formed non-partisan group, CUAC (Clean Up Anaheim Coalition) and residents of Anaheim meet at the steps of Anaheim City hall for a press conference on July 12, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Thursday’s event was planned to be in-person, though in response to a question from Voice of OC, Swaim said he’s looking into setting up a live-stream for people to watch remotely.

“What I hate is the City Council handing out benefits to specific companies that they are not willing to offer more widely,” he said.

“It’s not right. It’s not the purpose of the government.”

Moorlach, the Republican former county supervisor, said he wasn’t expecting the forum to get so much attention.

“I was asked to serve on the panel, and it was supposed to be some simple quiet little event, and now it’s in the paper,” Moorlach said in a phone interview..

“As a panelist, I’ll be there to answer questions and see where Will Swaim takes us.”

Swaim noted the outsized influence in Anaheim and many cities isn’t just limited to corporations, but includes government employee unions – particularly police unions.

In Anaheim, the city’s police union runs the third-biggest-sending political action committee, after the Disney-funded SOAR PAC and the Chamber of Commerce’s PAC.

And in neighboring Santa Ana, the city’s police union succeeded in 2020 by recalling a councilwoman who had voted against officer pay raises that city staff had deemed beyond the city’s financial means. That councilwoman was Ceci Iglesias, who works for Swaim’s nonprofit.

Whether they’re dealing with unions or businesses, Swaim said city leaders should be making decisions for the benefit of the community, not simply rewarding their campaign supporters.

Reform Proposals Hit a Wall in Anaheim

A wave of reform sentiment has repeatedly stopped and crashed against the Anaheim City Council members, who have deadlocked on campaign finance reform proposals since the FBI probe was unveiled.

The most recent denial came at a July 12 meeting, where residents called out what they saw as attempts to water down tighter regulations on council members taking official actions to benefit their major donors.

Residents — and one dissenting council member, Moreno — made cleaning agents the political mascot of these reform attempts, resort-friendly council members like Trevor O’Neil have claimed such attempts would run afoul the Constitution.

City Attorney Rob Fabela has said that while the proposed reforms were untested, there didn’t appear to be a First Amendment violation.

Other Disney-backed council members like Gloria Ma’ae and Jose Diaz called such reforms excessive, or claimed they were designed to swing the pendulum of undue influence the other way — to a non-resort-backed political environment.

The same council members last month also voted against a 2% Disneyland admission gate tax appearing on the ballot this November.

Supporters said voters should consider the option amidst the corruption scandal, as it could generate up to $82 million tax revenue if approved – in a city that has borrowed to pay its bills and, according to Moreno, can’t afford to keep libraries open seven days a week.

Members of the newly formed non-partisan group, CUAC (Clean Up Anaheim Coalition) and residents of Anaheim meet at the steps of Anaheim City hall for a press conference on July 12, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

At the City Council’s July 19 meeting, resort-friendly council members claimed the gate tax was unvetted, even as Moreno offered to modify the law, in front of them at the dais, to exempt transactions by Anaheim residents, or charitable events at affected venues.

“A lot of the attention seems to go to the national conversation of, is our democracy at peril, are our election in peril. And what I’m hoping to get across on Thursday evening is that all politics is local,” Moreno said in a phone interview.

“At the local level, what we’ve seen in Anaheim – regardless of the party affiliation of the council or mayor – it seems pretty consistent that the council majority has been unduly influenced by corporate interests,” he added.

[Click here for more information about the forum and how to RSVP.]

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