Anaheim City Council members have decided to fully fund an independent, city-commissioned corruption probe into city hall after hesitating earlier this month – something that fueled outcry amongst many residents and activist groups.
After roughly 40 people demanded the investigation be completed at Tuesday’s night’s public comment, city council members reversed course and voted 6-0-1 to double the investigation’s cost from $750,000 to $1.5 million with the JL Group. Councilman Steve Faessel abstained and didn’t discuss the issue at all.
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.
On Tuesday night, one investigator said he expects more FBI indictments are on the way.
During a tense, public interrogation of their own investigators, some council members expressed irritation with them for speaking with the media this past week, with Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava accusing them of engaging in a “potential shakedown” of the city for speaking with Voice of OC.
Rubalcava’s characterization prompted immediate pushback from retired OC Superior Court Judge Clay Smith, who’s overseeing the investigation.
“I’m extremely, extremely concerned about your use of the term shakedown,” Smith told Rubalcava. “I don’t think I made comments or quotes about the substance of the investigation. I’m certain I did not say anything to the reporter that hasn’t been stated in public.”
[Read: Here Comes The Judge: Meet the Man Overseeing Anaheim’s Corruption Probe]
Rubalcava also publicly tried – but failed – to get the city attorney attached to the independent investigation.
Smith again pushed back.
“I think we can continue and complete our assignment without having a city attorney involved in the investigation,” Smith said.
Council members also unanimously voted to allow investigators to share information about possible criminal misconduct with the District Attorney’s office.
“I do think that we owe it to our residents, our voters and our staff and ourselves to have a thorough and completed investigation that can help us better understand how we got to this moment, and what changes we can collectively make,” said Councilman Carlos Leon at the meeting.
Anaheim’s investigation was launched in August after last year’s explosive revelations of an FBI corruption probe, in which federal agents allege Disneyland resort area interests and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce wielded outsized influence on policy making at City Hall.
The very interests that help fund city council campaigns.
Tuesday’s decision also comes after council members earlier this month expressed concerns over the cost and told investigators to pare down the scope of the investigation before they’d spend more money on it.
But calls to scale it down abruptly changed Tuesday night.
“I am comfortable given that this has an end date,” said Mayor Ashleigh Aitken, who initially called for the investigation to be scaled down earlier this month.
“We have a plan going forward about what we’re looking at and what our output is now going to be so that we can find out what the conclusions are going to be and then move forward from there as a city making the changes that we need to make.”
Aitken, whose father Wylie Aitken chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors, said officials need to address the corruption scandal and shouldn’t wait for outside entities.
“If we wait for a criminal investigation that may end in a year … may never get picked up in the first place, we remain under a cloud,” she said.
Investigators Jeff Love and Jeff Johnson, along with retired Superior Court Judge Clay Smith – who is overseeing the probe – decided to not scale back their scope, or reduce the cost increase.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Smith said completing the investigation while maintaining its original scope is critical to the future of Anaheim.
“Without a complete and independent investigation, we cannot expect the people of Anaheim to have confidence in our final work product,” Smith said.
Love publicly broke down the scope for council members on Tuesday.
“We’re going to investigate the city’s finance transaction and joint projects with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. The Anaheim Chamber of Commerce is front and center in the FBI investigation,” Love told the council on Tuesday. “Specifically under the leadership of Todd Ament.”
Ament pleaded guilty to a series of federal fraud charges last year after federal agents detailed a web of public corruption surrounding him in a sworn affidavit.
Former Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned after federal agents alleged he tried disclosing critical information to Angels officials in an effort to ram through the Angel Stadium deal for $1 million in campaign support from the ballclub.
[Read: Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu Resigns After FBI Reveals Anaheim Corruption Probe]
The stadium sale fell apart last year and Sidhu – who hasn’t been charged with a crime – maintains he’s committed no wrongdoing.
Love also said he expects more FBI charges to drop in the coming months.
“The FBI has been at their investigation for at least 4 years and I suspect more indictments will be coming in the coming months,” Love said. “I can’t speak to them, but that is my belief based on some confidential information that we’ve received.”
Dozens of people – mostly residents and some volunteers with OCCORD – called for council members to finish the investigation and allocate the additional funds. Many spoke in Spanish demanding the investigation be seen through.
“I’m here to urge you to continue funding this independent investigation. For far too long special interest groups have reigned over our city,” resident Penelope Lopez told council members.
Lopez, who also is a lead organizer for the advocacy group Chispa, reminded the council of some of their campaign promises.
“Some of y’all ran on the promise of city hall reform – your campaign emails read you were people centered, that you would champion the truth and this is your time to come through,” she said. “Show us today where your priorities are: Are they with your residents or with donors?”
Councilwoman Natalie Meeks and Rubalcava were heavily financed by Disneyland area resort interests in last year’s elections.
Disney’s main local political spending vehicle, Support Our Anaheim Resort, spent nearly $547,000 on Meeks’ campaign to fund things like political mailers and digital advertising.
SOAR also spent heavily on Rubalcava, contributing about $380,000 to her campaign efforts, according to the most recent disclosures.
A Gag Order
Rubalcava publicly admonished Smith, Love and Johnson Tuesday night for speaking to Voice of OC.
“Great profile by the way,” Rubalcalva said to Smith. “Although the Voice of OC is not considered a profile type of outlet, so I did lose confidence in your neutrality, judge, when you guys did participate in that.”
[Read: Meet the Investigators Trying to Shine a Light on Corruption at Anaheim City Hall]
“I have lost confidence in the fact that you guys could actually be neutral,” Rubalcava said. “I get you have a right to talk to the media, but do you think it’s appropriate?”
Rubalcava, reading out loud quotes from the Voice of OC, called the interviews a “potential shakedown of the city.”
Love explained the investigators First Amendment right to express themselves.
While Judge Smith noted that he initially rejected a request for an interview, he thought a profile was acceptable, given the public curiosity about the probe and who is conducting it.
“I’d like to assure you that we had no intent to use the media to bring any pressure to exert any influence on the city council or anyone else,” Smith said.
He added, “When I reflected on that I thought that, quite frankly, it was in the interest of everyone, the city, the residents and stakeholders of the city and everyone else, to just have a little better picture of who we are, what our background is, how we came to be involved in this.”
Regardless, as part of their vote on Tuesday, the council put a gag order of sorts on the investigation team – barring them from speaking to the press until the investigation is complete, which is expected to be July 1.
Rubalcava said investigators and the retired judge told Voice of OC details that weren’t brought to the council earlier this month.
But, Smith, Love and Johnson said anything said in the profiles was already publicly information given aloud at council meetings and in their public reports to the council.
She wasn’t the only council member to question why the investigative team spoke to the press so did Councilman Jose Diaz and Councilman Leon.
“Well it’s my right to do that first off, secondly it was a profile piece on our firm,” Love responded to questions from Diaz. “Everything we’ve talked about in the investigation we’ve talked about right here, in public.”
JL Group to Share Information With District Attorney
As part of their Tuesday night vote, Anaheim City Council members authorized investigators to speak with Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s office.
Earlier this month, investigators revealed to Anaheim City Council members that they have found potential criminal wrongdoing in their investigation so far
“I contacted the District Attorney of Orange County just to tell him we were assigned to this case,” Love told council members.
Love said Spitzer recently called him and expressed concern about the statute of limitations on some of their potential findings.
Councilwoman Norma Kurtz asked if Spitzer’s office could take over the investigation.
“Todd Spitzer’s office is not going to investigate the same things we’ve been asked to investigate. He’s going to investigate criminal matters. We’re investigating other issues as well,” Love said.
Smith and the investigators called on the council to allow them to sit down with district attorney staff and share what they learned about the potential criminal violations.
“I’m going to ask rhetorically, is there any good reason to deny us the ability to do so? We’ve talked and thought about that. And we cannot conceive of a good reason to prohibit us from meeting with law enforcement and discussing the results of our as yet incomplete investigation,” he said.
Love said despite the DA’s office’s concerns, Spitzer does not know what they found.
“We have a lot to give them,” Johnson assured the council. “I’ll tell you that.”
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.
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