City-hired Investigators in Anaheim have spent months looking into the inner workings of city hall on a mission to root out corruption in Orange County’s largest city.
They’ve interviewed more than 60 people – prioritizing connected political consultants and speaking to former city council members and employees – with some interviews going on for as much as four hours at one time.
Pulling Back Anaheim’s Curtain
A behind the scenes look at the happiest place on Earth amid one of the largest corruption scandals to rock Orange County.
The retired judge overseeing the investigation said last week investigators have yet to be able to coordinate an interview with Angels representatives to learn their take on how the stadium deal fell apart last year after the release of an FBI affidavit that resulted in the immediate resignation of Mayor Harry Sidhu.
[Read: Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu Resigns After FBI Reveals Anaheim Corruption Probe]
Investigators are in the midst of combing through hundreds of thousands of emails in an effort to provide a clearer picture of the extent of the alleged corruption federal agents called out last year in the explosive FBI Corruption probe that rocked city halls in both Anaheim and Irvine.
Yet whether the public ever gets to see any of their investigative findings depends on whether a seemingly reluctant city council tonight agrees to double the $750,000 budget for the problem, something which investigators say is needed in order to submit a conclusive report.
Newly elected city council members – some who ran on campaigns of reform and some whose campaigns were heavily funded by the same resort interests touched on by the FBI probe – have publicly said they are hesitant to spend another cent on the investigation unless investigators scale it down.
Meanwhile, some residents who are often vocal at city council meetings and the community group – Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development are calling on the council to spend the additional money on the probe.
“We don’t want government corruption and we don’t want a government that hides behind corruption,” said Ely Flores, the executive director of the group, at a press conference they held in Anaheim on Monday.
“The biggest threat to a local democracy is a government that is corrupt.”
Clay Smith, the retired judge who was brought on by the city to oversee the investigation, said he and the investigators have no intention of narrowing the scope when they walk into city hall tonight and publicly ask for the additional funding. Instead they’ve submitted a clarification of the scope.
“I am deeply concerned that if the City now requires a narrowing of the investigation’s focus it will no longer be seen by the public as truly ‘independent.’ It would be seen as an investigation guided or limited by the City,” Smith wrote to council members earlier this month.
“Those who are eagerly awaiting the findings of the investigation may lack confidence in those findings knowing that the investigation was truncated by the current City Council. I submit that this is not in the best interest of anyone.”
“Most significantly, it is not what was promised to the citizens of Anaheim.”
Last August, previous city council members hired JL Group investigators and a Smith to helm the city’s own investigation months after the FBI revealed their own fiery corruption probe in Anaheim and the outsized influence the Chamber of Commerce and Disneyland resort industry has on city hall.
In sworn affidavits that contain evidence gathered from confidential witnesses and wiretapped conversations, agents accused the former mayor of trying to solicit $1 million in campaign donations for ramming through the now dead Angel Stadium land sale.
The FBI’s investigation in Orange County has already led to two high level, local political operatives pleading guilty to unrelated crimes – former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament and Melahat Rafiei, a former prominent OC Democratic Party broker.
Sidhu has not been publicly charged.
The Scope of the Anaheim Investigation
Jeff Love, one of the lead investigators the city has brought on, said in a recent phone interview, their probe into Anaheim is much broader that what the FBI is looking at.
[Read: Meet the Investigators Trying to Shine a Light on Corruption at Anaheim City Hall]
Love said what he and his colleagues are looking into includes: the Angel Stadium land sale, any pay to play schemes that may or may not have occurred “in relation to financial dealings,” and if city contracts may have received preferable treatment because of donations.
“The broad scope gives us greater latitude in looking at different types of potential misconduct,” he said. “They’re the ones that created it, we didn’t. And we understood what the scope was when we started.”
Last year, the city put out a request for qualifications for investigators in which they outlined a clear scope of work.
But council members like Natalie Rubalcava – who along with council colleague Natalie Meeks was elected last November with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Disney’s political spending arm Support Our Anaheim Resort – now publicly question whether investigators were given a clear scope. .
“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 at the Feb. 7 city council meeting.
Yet the scope set by the former council was specific.
It reads as follows:
“Conduct an independent outside investigation, including the use of a forensic accountant or similar professional as necessary, in connection with former Mayor Harry Sidhu and existing Council Members to determine if they improperly directed or influenced city business and activities based on campaign contributions stemming from the federal investigations recently made public,” the request reads.
“The investigation is expected to evaluate to what extent, if any, staff was involved in, participated in, or party to, the illegal and unethical behaviors in context of the federal investigation, and whether any serial communications/meetings in violation of the Brown Act occurred in the context of the facts alleged in the federal investigation,” the request continues.
It also included an eight point itemized list of what investigators should look at.
The scope was debated at the Aug. 9 meeting when a majority of the previous council voted to select the JL Group and Smith to helm the investigation.
Former Councilman Trevor O’Neil, at the time, said while bidders for the investigation seemed to express some uncertainty as to what the scope is, they all seemed to understand the “gist” of what was needed.
“They have an understanding and perhaps a better understanding of what is necessary than we might as these organizations have experience in conducting these sorts of investigations,” O’Neil said at the Aug. 9 meeting.
O’Neil – who would go on to unsuccessfully run for Mayor last November – earlier that year publicly identified himself as one of the elected officials FBI agents wrote about.
On Oct. 14, the JL Group sent the city council a refined proposed scope of work which was almost the same as the scope originally proposed with a few minor changes.
On Oct. 25, Smith and the investigators came to present the council with an update.
“Our minor revisions were not intended to expand or to contract our scope of work, we want our scope of work to be precisely what the city wants it to be,” Smith told council members at the Oct. 25 meeting.
The judge had a couple of clarifying questions on the timeframe investigators should look back on, whether they should look at independent expenditures as well as individual campaign contributions and should they look at officials outside of Anaheim.
No vote was taken on the scope at the meeting but Councilmember Jose Moreno expressed support for investigators to go back 10 years as well as to look at independent expenditures.
O’Neil said some council members ran for higher offices while they sat on the council and that the contributions to those campaigns should be looked at as well. He questioned whether it was worth looking into independent expenditures.
“But leave it to your discretion as to whether you think that that’s an avenue to explore,” he told the investigative team at the Oct. 25 meeting.
Who Are Investigators Talking to?
Investigators told the Voice of OC this month that they have conducted interviews with over 60 people – sometimes conducting interviews with the same person multiple times – as they get ready to prepare a final report on their findings.
Previous city council members through an official vote have promised to make that report public after facing intense pressure to do so from some residents which investigators say has made it sometimes difficult to get people to talk.
Love said the people they are talking to include former city council members, former city employees and political consultants but did not name anyone specific.
“A lot of the people we’re talking to– their stock and trade, their businesses are associated with these sorts of political types of activities, and so they’re very concerned about their reputations, about their livelihood and so forth,” Love said in a phone interview.
“Without getting into too many details, the people involved in politics or consulting – that sort of thing – are first and foremost on our list of individuals to talk to. We’ve interviewed quite a few.”
But they cannot compel everyone to speak to them.
Smith said efforts have been made to speak to people involved with Angels baseball.
“We would like to speak directly to someone from the Angels,” Smith said in a phone interview last week. “We haven’t been successful yet. But I haven’t given up on it. We’re still hopeful.”
“Please don’t infer from that, that we have any inkling of any misconduct by the Angels,” he continued. “We really would just very much like to get the Angels perspective of what went wrong with the transaction to sell the stadium.”
Marie Garvey, a spokesperson for the Angels, said in a text message Monday investigators have been in contact with the Angels’ lawyer but refused to elaborate further when asked if investigators were able to speak to anyone else.
Love on Monday said in a text message they can not comment “directly on anything about the investigation or the steps taken, at this juncture.”
Smith said investigators have also been speaking to people from Anaheim’s Chamber of Commerce.
“They’re working through the Chamber’s attorney to speak to people,” he said. “They have been able to conduct some interviews.”
The interviews, the investigators said, are being done over the phone, on zoom or in person.
Jeff Johnson, another one of the lead investigators, said some of the interviews went on for four hours – an instrumental investigation tool that costs money.
“We have a number of four hour interviews, just because there’s so much to cover,” Johnson said. “You want to be thorough in these interviews. These interviews are the key to this.”
“Talking to people is where you learn the most information.”
The Future of the Anaheim Investigation
Some residents are demanding the city follow through with the investigation by giving it the funding investigators say they need.
[Read: Calls Intensify for Anaheim’s City Leaders to Keep Promises to Root Out Corruption]
On Monday morning, Orange County Communities for Responsible Development held a press conference at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Anaheim.
“By fully funding this investigation, we can start to restore the trust that we lost, we can finally start to build a brighter future for all of us,” said Carolina Mendez, a member of the group Chispa and Anaheim resident, at Monday’s press conference.
Smith wrote to council members this month that narrowing the scope of the investigation may make it difficult to recommend reforms.
“I believe the benefits of completing the original scope of work far outweigh the additional cost. I also am very confident that the negative consequences of restricting the investigation at this point far outweigh the possible cost savings,” he wrote.
Love said the future of their corruption probe is dependent on the city council’s decision.
“Depending on what their decision is, then we will either move forward, or we’ll take some other steps, but we haven’t really decided that yet,” he said. “We’re highly capable, and we can do the work if allowed, and we hope that that’ll be the case.”
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.
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