Despite hired investigators publicly stating they’ve found potential criminal violations in their corruption probe, Anaheim City Council members could be backing away from those efforts citing cost concerns.
It comes after City Hall was rocked by an explosive FBI corruption probe last year, with federal agents publicly alleging a network of special interests had outsized influence in city policy making.
[Read: FBI Reveals What Many Anaheim Residents Felt For Years, City Hall is Run By The Chamber of Commerce]
The scandal also led to the implosion of the Angel Stadium land sale.
On the heels of all that, city council members contracted a city hall investigation in August as concerns and allegations of public corruption were swirling among residents. At that time, they intentionally gave investigators a wide berth – saying they wanted a deep look at city hall culture.
Yet this week, a new council indicated a very different approach.
Even after the contracted investigator Jeff Love, of the JL Group, publicly told council members the probe might have uncovered criminal wrongdoing.
“We have identified certain issues that could – we’re not arbitrators of the law – but could concern criminal violations of the law,” Love told the council on Tuesday.
They’re the same investigators who publicly told council members last year that they found “great stuff” in their probe.
[Read: City Hired Investigators Find ‘Great Stuff’ in Anaheim Corruption Probe]
A retired judge, hired to oversee the probe, also assured council members at Tuesday’s meeting they found information that needs further examination, but investigators require more time and money to complete their audit.
“What they’re finding – much of it is very interesting. It raises real concerns. It needs to be finished,” former OC Superior Court Judge Clay Smith told officials.
“I believe that if you’ve let them finish their job, you’ll be glad they did because you will know what happened and you will have, I think, some valuable recommendations for public policy.”
Yet on Tuesday, a majority of Anaheim Councilmembers decided against doubling the investigation’s spending cap by $750,000 and told the firm to scale down their probe before they consider putting more money into it. Councilman Steve Faessel abstained.
The issue is expected to come back Feb. 28.
“It would be reckless of me to approve taxpayer funds for an investigation that doesn’t have a clear scope,” said Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava.
Her colleague Councilwoman Natalie Meeks echoed similar concerns.
“I’m always concerned with a change order that comes in, doubling the scope or the cost of a project,” Meeks said at Tuesday’s meeting.
She referenced contracting from her time as a public works director in Anaheim.
“We do very specific bids, very specific line items and of course this proposal, this contract did not have that. It was very general. It seems to me that at this point in your investigation, you should be able to give us a specific proposal now,” Meeks said.
Mayor Ashleigh Aitken – who campaigned on bringing reform to the city – questioned whether the $750,000 could be used elsewhere.
“That’s three firefighters for us we could put on the streets and serve the community,” Aitken said.
Aitken’s father, Wylie, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
So far the city has received over $559,000 in invoices for the investigation and investigators are expected to reach the $750,000 the limit when city staff receives January’s invoice, according to a staff report.
Smith said the investigation would be completed by July 1 – if the council agreed to the $750,000 spending increase.
“We have not only given you a do not exceed number, but a definitive completion date of July 1,” Smith publicly told council members Tuesday night.
Councilwoman Norma Campos Kurtz asked what the city would get if the council did not vote to give investigators more time and money.
Aitken also asked what would happen if the city ends the investigation.
“What do we get with that if it looks like we just wrap it up right now?”
Love responded, “If we just completed some sort of product now – what would that look like? It would look like an incomplete investigation is what it would look like. I don’t know if that’s what the city wants.”
Federal agents allege former Mayor Harry Sidhu tried ramming through the Angel Stadium land sale for $1 million in campaign donations.
Sidhu, who hasn’t been charged with a crime, resigned last May and has maintained he did nothing wrong.
[Read: Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu Resigns After FBI Reveals Anaheim Corruption Probe]
Last year, Sidhu and the council majority were in the final stages of selling the stadium and the roughly 150 acres for $150 million in cash – a move criticized by many residents. It all fell apart shortly after the FBI investigation surfaced.
Read the FBI affidavits here and here.
Resident Jeanine Robbins, founder of People’s Homeless Task Force, said the city should make sure the investigation gets completed.
“If the auditors need more money than it should be given to them, I think they have found a hornet’s nest, a spider’s web that leads to all different kinds of people,” she said at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Let’s get the true story of what happened. The residents were misled. The residents were lied to. The residents deserve to know what happened.”
Last year, city officials tasked Jeff Johnson and Love with uncovering any pay to play activities that happened under Sidhu and the council members at the time.
The investigators were asked to examine campaign contributions and council-approved contracts for a “correlation between campaign contributions and city business and activities,” according to the original bid.
They were also tasked with examining lobbying activity, potential transparency law violations and if any development projects were tied to campaign donations.
Meeks, Rubalcava, Mayor Aitken and Councilman Carlos Leon all asked if the investigation could be put on hold until the FBI completes their corruption probe.
Yet investigators noted they’ve found plenty for residents to be concerned about that may not be of interest to the FBI.
“Our scope is different than theirs. We’re not duplicating their effort … We primarily address not only political crimes, but state crimes and violations as well. We’re looking at some different things than the feds are. I’m not sure that would help for you to put it on hold,” said Johnson.
Johnson, who was a nearly 30-year Long Beach police officer, said they “have never seen anything like this before.”
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at email@example.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Start each day informed with our free email newsletter.
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, with no paywalls and no popups. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But this work not free. 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.