Renewed questions are popping up once again in Anaheim on whether residents will ever get an in-depth look at the extent of alleged corruption at city hall.
Some people are worried that the findings of a city investigation – commissioned after the FBI revealed last May their own fiery corruption probe in Anaheim – may be kept secret.
But one councilwoman expressed concerns that some elements of the report – expected to be finalized in July – could open the city up to legal liabilities.
The concern comes about a month after city council members who were hesitant to spend more money on the independent corruption probe unless it was scaled down, reversed course and decided to fully fund the investigation following intense pressure from residents.
[Read: Anaheim Officials Reverse Course and Fully Fund an Independent City Corruption Probe]
At last week’s city council meeting, Councilwoman Natalie Meeks called for a discussion on the process of how and what part of the investigators’ final report will be released to the public worried that it might get them sued.
“I know the previous council voted to release that. But we have been advised by Judge (Clay) Smith, that that could present liability issues to the city and he has advised both in writing and verbally when he was here, that the city should reconsider and not release the report,” she said at the meeting.
Smith was hired to oversee the process of the probe.
Meeks said they don’t know what the findings are, but wants to have that discussion before the investigators make their final report.
In interim reports to the council on the progress of the investigation, Smith wrote that while they respect the decision of the council to release the final report, it can have two unintended consequences.
One was that some witnesses were reluctant to speak.
“Second, City employees or officials ultimately identified in the report may have applicable privacy and employment rights impacted by releasing the report. We urge the City to review carefully these issues prior to the release of the final report,” Smith wrote in his January report.
Smith did not say in the January report or the reports made prior that the city should not release the findings, but did suggest the city consider if any redactions would be appropriate.
Fred Sigala Jr., a resident and city commissioner, said in a Wednesday phone interview that it is important residents see the findings of the investigation because there has been an “air of secrecy” over city hall since the scandal broke.
“I think that them trying to obscure any of these results is going to just continue to perpetuate that same air of distrust that exists in our city,” he said about the council.
In a Thursday phone interview, Meeks said the discussion is needed because the council needs to address the liability issues and how to protect the city.
“I support releasing the findings of the final report, but in what format that might be to protect the city from liability – I think that we need to have that conversation,” she said.
When asked to clarify what she’d be in support of releasing, Meeks said she did not yet have a specific answer.
“I want to be able to have that discussion with attorneys that are well versed in employment law and liability, so that we can be advised on what can be released and what things should be redacted or not released,” she said.
None of the other council members responded to requests for comment last week.
Will Newly Elected Officials Break a Previous Council’s Promise?
In August, the previous city council hired the JL Group, an investigative firm, and retired Superior Court Judge Clay Smith to oversee their own corruption probe after federal agents alleged Disneyland resort area interests and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce wielded outsized influence on policy making at City Hall.
That council – including former Councilman Trevor O’Neil who identified himself as one of the unnamed elected officials the FBI detailed in their affidavit – also unanimously voted in November to make the final report public after facing intense pressure to do so from residents.
Federal agents didn’t accuse O’Neil of any wrongdoing in the affidavits.
[Read: Anaheim Residents Pressure City Council to Publicly Release Corruption Probe]
But 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 – might break that promise.
“Meeks’ proposal last night puts that in jeopardy, because it could either mean, part of the investigation, or even all of the investigation findings, or majority of them wouldn’t be released to the public, based on her assertion that they could create a liability issue for the city,” Sigala said.
“That’s unfair to the residents and to the people who are funding the investigation with our tax dollars.”
At the November meeting, City Attorney Rob Fabela said the decision to publish the final report means the report will be released when it’s finished, unless a future city council explicitly votes against releasing the corruption probe.
Meeks said she has a legal and fiduciary responsibility to uphold the law.
“I cannot support releasing information that is illegal to release,” she said in the phone interview. “And put the city in a position of financial liability by taking such action. I’m trying to do what’s right on both sides, be able to release findings to the public, but also protect the city from potential liability.”
When former Councilman Jose Moreno called for the final report to be made public last year, former Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae questioned if it was legal to make the finding public.
“We are absolutely operating under the assumption that our work product will ultimately be in the public domain, as it should be. As others have pointed out, we understand that this effort is being funded by taxpayer dollars,” Smith said at a city council meeting in October.
He added, “Those who are paying for our effort, are absolutely entitled to know what the result of our effort is.”
[Read: City Hired Investigators Find ‘Great Stuff’ in Anaheim Corruption Probe]
Will The Cloud Over City Hall Ever Evaporate?
This is the second time in a span of a month that some residents feel their council members will not let the completed investigation see the light of day – after council members were hesitant to fully fund the investigation in February.
Sigala said Meeks’ request is suspicious given her and other council members like Natalie Rubalcava had their campaigns heavily funded by the same resort interests touched on by the FBI probe.
“It seems to be that they’re attempting a different strategy to obscure the results of that investigation,” he said.
Meeks received over $546,000 in campaign support from Disney’s chief campaign spending vehicle, Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR), while Rubalcava received over $379,000 in support from SOAR.
And while public pressure led the council at the end of February to vote to double the $750,000 budget for investigators, they did so with some conditions – which included forbidding Smith and the investigators to speak to the press.
The gag order was put in place at the request of Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava after the Voice of OC wrote a series of stories on the investigators, Smith, and the investigation itself.
Sigala hopes the JL Group investigators and Smith will at least be present when the discussion is held.
Meeks said Smith will be invited to participate in the expected discussion.
City council members are expected to meet tomorrow but a discussion on the final investigation report is expected to take place at a future date.
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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