In their short time in office, Anaheim’s new City Council has spent hundreds of thousands of tax dollars on items like palm tree lighting for the resort district, helicopter engines, computer systems and police dogs – all without much public discussion.
But council members are intensely questioning whether to spend another $750,000 on an investigation to root out alleged corruption at city hall.
City council members decided to hire their own investigators in August– months after the revelation of an explosive FBI corruption probe in which federal agents alleged a shadowy group of resort interests heavily influenced City Hall, accusing the former mayor of trying to solicit campaign donations for ramming through the Angel Stadium land sale.
[Read: FBI Reveals What Many Anaheim Residents Felt For Years, City Hall is Run By The Chamber of Commerce]
But now, following an election that brought in a new roster of officials – some who campaigned on transparency and reform – it’s unclear if city hired investigators will get the additional time and money they say is needed to deliver a complete report.
A report, investigators said, that could potentially lead to criminal charges.
Anaheim’s new City Council members, earlier this month, refused to double the $750,000 budget of investigators citing cost concerns, despite investigators stating publicly they’ve found potential criminal violations in their investigation.
Instead, a majority of the council directed the investigators to narrow the scope of their investigation before they’d consider pouring in more money and continued the discussion to the Feb. 28 meeting.
Council members also hinted at lowering the cost of the investigation.
[Read: Is Anaheim Shortchanging its Commissioned Corruption Probe?]
Yet the new city council has unanimously voted without much discussion to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a host of other items in the four meetings they’ve had since their Dec. 6 inauguration.
At their first meeting together in December, the newly elected council voted to spend over $600,000 to overhaul the engine of one of their police helicopters and rent an engine while the other one gets fixed.
Without much discussion.
This despite newly elected Councilman Carlos Leon saying he wanted to have a meeting about helicopter usage, which is routinely flying around West Anaheim.
“I don’t think it’s the first time you’ve heard this about helicopter usage and the potential disturbance in the neighborhoods, so I just want to put this out there so if we can have a meeting to sort of understand the history behind that. And then maybe have a community meeting specifically with that neighborhood and maybe other areas in District 2,” Leon said at the Dec. 20 meeting.
That same meeting council members also voted to spend up to $400,000 to buy and train police service dogs – another expenditure from the police’s general fund budget for this year.
Without any discussion.
At the Jan. 24 meeting, the new city council unanimously voted to spend over $355,000 on palm tree lighting fixtures for the Anaheim Resort Maintenance district.
With no discussion.
At the same meeting, they also approved a $300,000 one year contract to overhaul their police software systems with the option to renew the contract four more times for a grand total of $1.5 million – about the same amount as the city’s anti-corruption probe.
Again, with no discussion.
Questioning Cost and Effectiveness of Investigation
Yet last week, when council members considered whether to further fund the anti-corruption probe, it sparked the most intense questioning of a public expense to date.
Leon – who campaigned as a City Hall reformer last year – joined his colleagues in questioning the need for additional funding on the investigation.
“Without jeopardizing the process, are additional funds and time going to significantly alter the conclusions of what you’ve done so far, what you’ve discovered?” Leon asked at the Feb. 7 meeting.
Retired OC Superior Court Judge Clay Smith, who oversees the investigation, said that’s tough to predict.
“Based on what we’ve seen so far, I would say it’s impossible or very difficult to try to predict what we’re going to learn over the next couple of months,” Smith said.
Mayor Ashleigh Aitken, who also campaigned on increasing transparency and rolling out reforms, raised similar concerns over the investigation.
“Can we narrow the scope in a manner that we could get something that is deliverable?” Aitken asked at the Feb.7 meeting.
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
Jeff Love, a contracted investigator, said narrowing the scope could impact what they’ve already done.
“It’s hard for me to say because we would have to shift our focus,” Love responded. “The existing scope that we worked on would be wasted in a sense.”
FBI Probe Touches Political Donors
The FBI probe touches on the very interests that helped get Councilmembers Natalie Meeks and Natalie Rubalcava elected last year, like Disney’s chief campaign spending vehicle, the Support Our Anaheim Resort political action committee.
SOAR heavily backed Rubalcava and Meeks in last year’s election, spending nearly $547,000 on Meeks’ campaign alone, funding things like political mailers and digital advertising.
Resort interests also spent heavily on Rubalcava, contributing about $380,000 to her campaign, according to the most recent disclosures.
Disney gave SOAR $1.3 million, which was nearly all spent on last year’s elections. Newly appointed City Councilwoman Norma Campos Kurtz sat on SOAR’s advisory committee until her appointment last month.
Both Meeks and Rubalcava asked the most questions about narrowing the investigation out of any of their colleagues at the Feb. 7 meeting.
“I guess what I’m asking for is a refined scope of work,” Meeks said, adding she’d like to know what the additional spending would bring. “I think it’s just fair for this council to know what we’re getting for this extra $750,000.”
Rubalcava said things seemed shaky to her.
“It sounds like we’re kind of throwing numbers out. You’ve stated that you’re not really sure how much longer it can take. It’s sort of like an abyss of information we’re exploring at this point,” she said.
Investigators told council members the $750,000 would be their only additional funding request and they’d finish the probe by July 1.
It’s unclear exactly what the city contracted investigators are looking at because they refused to publicly give specifics, citing fears of jeopardizing the investigation.
The outgoing city council last year gave them an intentionally wide work scope in an effort to look for any potential corruption, like pay-to-play activities involving elected officials, campaign donors and staff members who might’ve aided them.
While officials spend money on these items, some residents are demanding they follow through with investigation no matter the cost.
[Read: Calls Intensify for Anaheim’s City Leaders to Keep Promises to Root Out Corruption]
According to a Feb. 7 staff report, investigators have racked up over $559,000 in invoices so far out of their budget of $750,000.
In a January progress report, Smith noted that the cost of the investigation has been impacted by its complexity.
“The highly experienced investigators are unaware of prior independent investigations of a California municipality having this degree of complexity,” he wrote.
“The investigators have discovered a wide range of transactions, events, communications, and conduct which justify careful scrutiny.”
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.
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
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