An FBI corruption probe in Anaheim has shown it’s not just who you take money from that affects your political image – it’s also from whom you won’t.

A few city council members are returning special interest money in light of the scandal, which arose in May while they seek re-election in November this year. 

Some local political observers say the election is shaping up to be a battle between the interests of residents and the Disneyland-area resort industry.

Councilmembers Gloria Ma’ae and Trevor O’Neil – both of whom are running this November – each disclosed returning $2,200 donations from the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, whose former CEO Todd Ament pleaded guilty in July to federal fraud charges.

They also returned $2,200 to Ament’s 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 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.

Yet the same sitting council members have also taken money from interests with close ties to the Disneyland resort area – interests FBI agents said have an outsized influence over City Hall policymaking.

The stadium deal has figured prominently in the FBI’s corruption probe, with agents alleging then-Mayor Harry Sidhu was caught on tape planning to seek a $1 million bribe from the Angels after leaking internal city negotiation information to the baseball team. 

Sidhu has denied wrongdoing through his attorney.

O’Neil also returned a $2,200 donation he received from FSB Core Strategies, the lobbying firm of Jeff Flint, who the FBI says 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.

Councilmember Avelino Valencia also returned a $2,500 donation from Flint’s lobbying firm on May 19. 

Valencia was elected in 2020 with the help of resort money, but has gotten more vocal about special interests in light of the FBI probe and during his bid for the 69th State Assembly District seat as a Democrat, where he’s chief of staff for the seat’s current holder, Tom Daly.

That same day, Valencia also returned a $500 donation to John Carpino, the president of Angels Baseball. 

“Our campaign for State Assembly returned two contributions from individuals who had connections to the Angels baseball organization. Both contributions had arrived unsolicited. We issued these refunds out of an abundance of caution as soon as the FBI corruption probe came to light,” said Derek Humphrey, a spokesperson for Valencia’s campaign, in a Sept. 4 email.

Neither Ma’ae nor O’Neil returned Voice of OC requests for comment on their returned donations.

To Return or Not to Return a Donation?

In some cases, candidates returned money from certain donors yet kept money from others in the same network of resort interests. 

For instance, Ma’ae received $250 from Kuhl and her disclosures do not show her returning it like O’Neil did. 

She and Valencia also did not return donations they received from the Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR) political action committee, which was mentioned in one of the FBI’s court affidavits. 

SOAR is Disney’s chief campaign spending vehicle, with the entertainment juggernaut having put $1.3 million into the political action committee in preparation for this year’s election.

Before her appointment to the city council last year, Ma’ae sat on SOAR’s advisory committee and was also heavily involved in organizing Anaheim First – a Chamber of Commerce-created advisory group.

The federal filings describe a cadre of powerful interests controlling elected officials and policymaking in Anaheim. According to the filings one wiretapped phone call featured Ament, a self-described “ringleader,” using SOAR as an example of how “the sausage was made.” 

The FBI probe – revealed in public court filings in mid-May and based on wiretapped calls and undercover recordings – alleged a host of criminality by influential power players at City Hall, including by Ament and Mayor Sidhu.

The story of Anaheim in recent decades has been the battle between large business interests – Disney, Angels Baseball, the hospitality industry – and the “working class citizens,” said Mike Moodian, a political science professor at Chapman University. 

“There are many who argue – and it’s a valid argument – that Anaheim should be friendly to big businesses … because they bring so much money to the city,” Moodian said.

On the flip side, “there are those more on the progressive side who also make a valid argument that there’s too much business influence and it leads to this corporate welfare – the Angels deal for example, where they were trying to give away all this land for such a small price,” Moodian said.

‘What Will Voters Do?’

Voters are set to shape Anaheim’s future in this election – with residents’ very quality of life at stake, said Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College.

“Do you want tax revenues to improve parks and sponsor events for everyone and to have lower energy costs and more sustainable energy? [Or] do you want a government that works for the biggest business in town?” Balma said.

“If you care about police brutality, you care about who hires your police chief, and that’s your city council,” she added.n “If you care about streets and public transportation and parking, that’s your city council.”

A big question this time around is how voters will react to the FBI investigation.

“In the aftermath of Sidhu stepping down and the FBI scandal, what will voters do in response?” Moodian said.

“Will voters … kick out people who they feel are affiliated with the scandal, or are we going to see a lot of money come in … to try to maintain business-friendly candidates in Anaheim?”

Much of the FBI’s allegations center on the Angel Stadium deal and how the mayor let Disney’s lobbyist dictate what he said publicly when making a major decision at City Hall. Neither the Angels nor Disney are accused of criminal actions.

Sidhu resigned about a week after the FBI probe surfaced. Ament pleaded guilty to four federal crimes after cooperating with federal agents in gathering evidence against Sidhu.

In an affidavit, the FBI alleged a consultant close to SOAR engaged in a “fraud scheme.”

The FBI accused the consultant, Jeff Flint, of helping 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.

Flint has denied wrongdoing and taken a leave of absence from his lobbying firm.

Campaign money says a lot about candidates, Balma said.

“Look at who pays,” she said. “Looking at where those donations come from is a big indicator of who they associate with.”

Following the Money

This campaign season, the biggest money – by far – to be put into position for Anaheim’s election is from Disney, which has pumped $1.3 million into SOAR.

O’Neil, in particular, got over $200,000 in ads from SOAR during his 2018 election.

It’s a pattern regularly seen during city council elections.

In 2020, SOAR heavily spent on the campaigns of Councilmen Steve Faessel, Jose Diaz and Valencia – all resort-friendly council members.

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

Several council candidates also have close ties to Disney and its political money vehicle.

Ma’ae – who was appointed to the council and is now running for election in District 2 – was on SOAR’s advisory board and a group called Anaheim First, which Ament has said was created by the chamber while he was running it.

District 3 candidate Natalie Rubalcava-Garcia works as a top executive at the OC Business Council, a big-business lobbying group whose PAC has received past Disney campaign money destined for Anaheim elections.

Rubalcava-Garcia was appointed to a city commission by Councilman Avelino Valencia, who received $2,500 in campaign money from SOAR in May for his Assembly campaign.

Rubalcava-Garcia raised more than $87,000 between this and last year for her city council campaign, with a maxed out contribution from SOAR last year. And this year, she got maximum donations from the Anaheim police union, several trade unions, a car dealers’ association, and OC’s big-business lobbying group, the OC Business Council.

District 6 candidate Natalie Meeks hasn’t disclosed her campaign finances since she jumped into the race at the last minute. SOAR listed her as a committee donor throughout last year. 

She’s also a city planning commission appointee of O’Neil, who received SOAR money last year. 

No Resort Money? No Problem

A lack of any apparent resort backing hasn’t stopped other candidates in town from raising their own significant warchests. 

Back in the mayoral ring this year is Ashleigh Aitken, a Democrat who criticized the resort’s influence over city affairs, ran unsuccessfully against Sidhu in 2018, and is now running on City Hall reform. Her father is attorney Wylie Aitken, who’s also Voice of OC’s board chair. 

Aitken has fundraised more than $300,000 for her campaign this time around. She counted maximum contributions from Planned Parenthood, the county general employees’ union and a host of attorneys from Orange County and across Southern California. 

She’s also received money from the resort area hotel workers union Unite Here Local 11, a countywide political action committee called the Orange County Victory Fund, and the electrical utility workers’ union known as IBEW Local 47. 

Aitken received a smaller donation from Diana Kotler, who’s close to resort affairs and heads up the Anaheim Transportation Network, a shuttle service which mostly serves the resort.

O’Neil and Aitken are up against two other mayoral contenders who have raised far less money: Lorri Galloway, a former council member who has brought in roughly $12,000 for her campaign, and Dick Lopez, a water systems coordinator whose name doesn’t come up in the city’s fundraising disclosures database. 

Council candidate Al Jabbar is a deputy chief of staff for OC Supervisor Doug Chaffee and a board trustee at the Anaheim Union High School District. He’s raised more than $74,000 between this and last year, with maximum contributions from the unions representing plumbers and grocery store workers. 

City Council candidates Hari Shankar Lal and Carlos Leon both raised roughly $30,000 for their campaigns. Leon, who’s up against Ma’ae, raised more than $33,000 this year.

Maximum contributions came through for Leon from a top staffer at Tom Umberg’s office and those of other Capitol lawmakers’ offices, as well as from a social worker at the Regional Center of Orange County, a developmental disability nonprofit.

Lal is up against Meeks in Anaheim Hills and raised nearly $30,000 this year, counting his largest contributions from Indian American business owners and professionals from across Southern California. 

Balma, the political science professor at Fullerton College, says Anaheim needs to rethink how it does elections entirely. 

“What I hoped would come out of the Sidhu and FBI (situation) was that we’d take a look at election rules. That we need to move that election to the June ballot to have a runoff,” Balma said. “Because now we have the potential for shenanigans.” 

Balma recalls the 2018 mayoral election, in which there were eight candidates and roughly 35% of Anaheim voters opted for candidates “other than the top two.”

“That was a very important choice for the city. And it was decided by less than 500 votes,” she said.

This year, the race is down to four candidates, and all will face off at once in November. 

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.