Resident watchdogs, activists, community leaders and Orange County’s Democratic party are all pushing back on Anaheim City Council members this week, calling on them to stay the course on a contracted corruption investigation into City Hall instead of paring down efforts stemming from a scandal that surfaced last year.
That kind of a probe was launched by city officials last year amidst popular pressure after FBI officials released an affidavit in May publicly announcing a corruption probe and calling out Anaheim City Hall as a place run by resort insiders.
It’s something that triggered the mayor’s resignation and ended up terminating a proposed stadium deal between the city and the Los Angeles Angels.
On Tuesday night, city-hired investigators publicly told the council they found potential criminal activity in their probe and that they need more money and time to be able to turn in a complete investigation – something last year’s city council majority promised to make public to residents.
Yet exactly the opposite occurred.
Instead of authorizing the $750,000 spending increase, city council members voted 6-0 to continue the discussion to Feb. 28 and directed investigators to narrow their scope with the aim of wrapping up their probe before they’d consider putting in more money into the investigation.
[Read: Is Anaheim Shortchanging its Commissioned Corruption Probe?]
Former Councilman Jose Moreno, who spearheaded the investigation efforts last year before a new council was elected, said Tuesday’s public update from investigators showed something’s there.
“I felt that in many ways it validated the call and the investment in the investigation that the previous council asked for. It validated the scope of work when I heard that comment that it found potential violations of criminal statutes,” Moreno said in a Wednesday interview.
Last year, an explosive FBI corruption probe parked a dark cloud over City Hall.
In sworn affidavits, federal agents alleged Disneyland-area resort interests and the chamber of commerce greatly influenced policy making in the city. The affidavits included evidence gathered through wiretapped phone calls and confidential witnesses.
It led to the collapse of the Angel Stadium deal.
In the fallout, Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned after the FBI alleged he tried ramming the stadium sale through for campaign money and the former CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Todd Ament pleaded guilty to a series of federal fraud charges. Sidhu hasn’t been charged with a crime and has maintained he did nothing wrong.
During the election season council candidates, like Mayor Ashleigh Aitken, campaigned on City Hall reform.
In the fallout from the FBI probe, council members voted in August to hire the JL Group as investigators and hired retired Superior Court Judge Clay Smith to oversee a city commissioned investigation into city hall in an effort to root out corruption.
Now, community groups, like Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, and a group of residents active at city hall are demanding city council members stay the course.
“They are very concerned, they want to see this investigation through and OCCORD is going to continue to push for this investigation to be fully funded, and for this investigation to be finished as a complete product,” said the group’s Executive Director, Ely Flores, in a Wednesday phone interview.
At Tuesday’s public meeting, city council members said they were concerned about expanding the cost of the investigation and said the money could be used elsewhere.
But resident and longtime city hall watchdog Jeanine Robbins heavily criticized those concerns, especially Aitken’s statement that $750,000 could hire more firefighters.
“Ashleigh was insulting to the residents on 2 occasions – when she said people want libraries open, etc.,” Robbins said in a Wednesday text message. “Yes, but they want the truth more and when she said for $750,000 they could have 3 firefighters. Maybe, but they won’t.”
“It’s the same cabal,” Robbins said, “just different faces and last night proved it.”
Aitken’s father, Wylie, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
Robbins also said Aitken reversed her position on campaign finance reform for the city at a local Democratic party meeting last week. Last Summer, Aitken publicly supported Moreno’s proposed campaign finance reforms that were ultimately shot down later that year.
[Read: FBI Reveals What Many Anaheim Residents Felt For Years, City Hall is Run By The Chamber of Commerce]
Mayor Aitken and the rest of the council didn’t return calls seeking comment on Wednesday.
Longtime resident and activist for local homeless people, Wes Jones, said the city should’ve stayed the course, despite the requested $750,000 increase.
“I’m 100% there. I was very disappointed in the vote, I question why the vote was that way – what could drive them to do that? Every one of them campaigned on let’s clean up the mess from the Harry Sidhu administration,” Jones said in a Wednesday phone interview.
“Now, it looks like maybe they want to hide it. I don’t know, it’s hard to figure.”
A majority of council members expressed concerns about the increased $750,000 spending request on Tuesday and questioned if that money was being used wisely.
Yet not one council member raised questions about spending $355,000 to change out palm tree lighting in the resort district at their Jan. 24 meeting.
That item was on the consent calendar, where all the items are typically passed with one vote, unless they are specifically pulled by a council member.
During her campaign, Aitken was a heavy supporter of reforms and increased transparency.
“As a former Federal Prosecutor, I know how to fight corruption and bring about real reforms to restore integrity to City Hall. I vow to restore people’s faith in City Hall by initiating reforms to root out corruption and increase transparency, including strengthening our campaign finance laws and lobbyist regulations,” she said in last November’s Voice of OC election questionnaire.
She also supported anti-corruption efforts during public comment last year.
“We must focus on not just how to right our ship, but how do we prevent this lawless leadership from succeeding again? First any discussion of our future needs to include council action on election reform,” Aitken said at the May 24 meeting.
She added, “We need to take action to protect our city from the vultures who lined their pockets with our tax dollars.”
In addition, Aitken’s fundraising emails, such an Oct. 22 message in the waning weeks of the campaign, used the same tone and painted her opponent, former city councilman Trevor O’Neil, as “anti-reform.”
“Local families just want the City Hall corruption cleaned up and refocused on taking care of neighborhoods, jobs, our economy, and local issues,” reads the email. “I need your support today so I can continue to tell voters across Anaheim my background as a former federal prosecutor cleaning up crime and corruption.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Smith – who oversees the investigation – said the final investigation report could serve as a blueprint of sorts on how to initiate reform policies.
“I believe if you let them finish their job, you will be glad they did. Because you will know what happened and you will, I think, have some valuable recommendations for public policy,” Smith publicly told council members.
Ada Briceño, chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County and the co-president of UNITE HERE Local 11, urged the council to follow through on the original investigation commitment.
“I hope that the council comes back with a full desire to have the most thorough investigation possible because – unfortunately – they were tasked with cleaning up some of the horrific injustices that have been made to the residents of Anaheim,” Briceño said in a Wednesday phone interview.
OC Democrats and Unions representing resort workers, like Unite Here, strongly backed Aitken in the 2022 election.
Those leaders this week stuck with their calls for an aggressive city probe.
“This investigation has to uncover the deep flaws, the systemic flaws that have kept people and workers kind of on the low in such an important city in Orange County,” Briceño said on Wednesday after the city council action. “I think the more information, the better. I think the more in-depth that they go, the better.”
Resident David Duran – also part of the People’s Homeless Task Force – and longtime City Hall watchdog said he’s noticed a shift in tone from some of the newly elected council members.
“We know that they made some strong promises of reform – they campaigned on it,” Duran said in a Wednesday phone interview. “When it comes time to push the button to follow through, they’re backing off. That is horrible.”
Does Transparency Have a Price?
Moreno – who sat on the council when the city-commissioned investigation launched – questions whether a price tag could be put on transparency and anti-corruption efforts.
“What’s the price of an honest transparent government that believes and subscribes to integrity and to assuring that the people’s business is done honestly? What’s the price tag on that? I don’t think there is one,” he said in a Wednesday interview.
City officials tasked the contracted investigators with examining campaign contributions and council-approved contracts for a “correlation between campaign contributions and city business and activities,” according to the original bid.
Investigators were given a wide swath to work with in an effort to uncover how far public corruption has gone at City Hall.
Moreno said the investigation’s findings could nullify the current Angel Stadium lease, which was spearheaded by former Mayor Harry Sidhu in 2019 when he classified it as a one-year temporary lease extension.
Flores said his group believes council members’ actions this week are an attempt to keep the truth from coming out and doesn’t help efforts to rebuild residents’ trust of City Hall.
“There’s already a large amount of mistrust between Anaheim residents and the council,” he said. “Residents have shared that they want to get a petition going to again, ensure that the city council completely funds and completes the investigation.”
Moreno questioned if council members had paid attention to previous discussions and meetings on the city contracted investigation.
“They were seemingly unaware of the tone, the level of frustration expressed by residents from across the city. It wasn’t just your usual watchdog groups or residents who come regularly to provide critical insight and commentary,” he said.
“It was folks across the city. It was Republicans, it was Democrats, it was moms, young people, seniors, non profit leaders – it was across the board – folks saying we want to know what happened.”
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
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.
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