Anaheim City Council Members hand out hundreds of free tickets to Angel Stadium and the Honda Center every year.
In all, nearly $127,00 in free tickets were handed out by council members just since December.
City ticket disclosures reviewed by Voice of OC show that every council member gave at least a quarter of the free tickets to schools and nonprofits.
The rest went to campaign donors, friends and family, or individual city staff members as well as city council members themselves.
Tickets To The Show
A Voice of OC investigation found Anaheim leaders are regularly handing out the city’s free tickets to city staff, campaign donors and political insiders.
Fullerton College Professor Jodi Balma, who writes and lectures on local politics, said Anaheim’s ticket policy creates a questionable image on City Hall, which is still reeling from the fallout from FBI affidavits filed in court last year alleging resort interests have an outsized influence on policy making.
“It’s a terrible look. Even if every council member since Anaheim was created has gotten these same things. Things look different in the light of an FBI investigation,” Balma said. “If I were the FBI, I’d really ask some questions about a council that was still accepting (tickets) while still negotiating (a potential sale).”
To review all the disclosures compiled by Voice of OC from December to May 17, click here.
City officials said the city ticket distribution policy for free baseball, hockey and concert tickets is aimed at access for community groups and rewarding city volunteers.
But the disclosures are not very thorough, making it difficult to identify who exactly got tickets in some instances.
A Voice of OC review of event tickets shows that altogether, the members of the city council issued just over half of the city’s free tickets in the six months since their inauguration day, according to their disclosures filed with the city.
A review of the records also showed several trends.
Overall, Mayor Ashleigh Aitken gave the least of her tickets to nonprofits – 27%, records show.
Meanwhile, Councilman Carlos Leon gave the most – 54% of his total tickets – to local nonprofits.
A Voice of OC review found that Aitken gave the most to political insiders and donors.
Councilwoman Natalie Meeks gave the most tickets to family members.
Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava gave the most tickets to herself.
Councilman Jose Diaz focused much of his tickets on police officers or himself.
Councilman Stephen Faessell gave many of his tickets to staff members as well as people Voice of OC could not Identify.
Councilwoman Norma Campos-Kurtz, who was appointed to the council in February after former Councilman Avelino Valencia won an election to the state assembly, hasn’t given out many tickets yet.
City Council members control of these kinds of free tickets has generated questions on how objective they can be when negotiating with teams like the Angels and the Ducks as they profit from the arrangement.
“When it comes to giving tickets to people who have an actual oversight role and business dealings with the local professional sports teams, that is an obvious conflict of interest and good public policy should prohibit it,” said Victor Matheson, a sports economics professor at the University of Minnesota who studies stadiums throughout the country.
He said the practice of city officials using and getting free tickets isn’t likely to change in the near future.
“Good luck getting that actually passed,” Matheson said. “But it’s obviously good public policy that you don’t accept gifts from people who have business before the government.”
Neil deMause, an author and stadium expert, said the practice is common in cities with sports venues but that doesn’t mean it’s not a conflict of interest.
“Anytime that elected officials are getting perks,” he said “That’s something that is going to potentially sway them and how they will vote on anything from a lease extension to stadium upgrades to land sales and things like that.”
“It’s a widespread problem that I wish more cities were carefully monitoring.”
Mayor Ashleigh Aitken
Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken said that while handling all these tickets is a “fairly new process,” she’s doing her best to make sure people in the community get in.
“We want to make sure we get as many people in groups access as possible,” Aitken said. “The majority go to silent auctions for nonprofits.”
But her ticket disclosures show that isn’t always the case.
Only around 27% of Aitken’s tickets went to nonprofits or schools: the rest went to a mix of political donors, campaign staff and other political leaders from around the county, or for her own personal use, according to those disclosures.
Aitken’s father, Wylie, chairs the Voice of OC board of directors.
In an interview with the LA Times published in March, Aitken said she wouldn’t be using the city’s special access for Angels games.
“I’m a season-ticket holder,” she said. “Don’t look for me in the suite.”
But on April 7, opening day for the Angels, records show Aitken gave herself six tickets valued at nearly $1,000 total.
Aitken said she used the opening day tickets for a city event in the city’s box.
“The comment in the LA Times was ‘Do you plan on going to all the games in the city suite?’ and certainly not all of them but if it’s a city-related reason why I should be there, then yeah I want to go and support the team and the city,” Aitken said.
Aitken was joined in the box that day by Councilmembers Leon, Rubalcava and Meeks according to their disclosures.
A Voice of OC review of the disclosures also found multiple instances when Aitken donated free tickets to her staff and major campaign donors just weeks after she was sworn in.
Days after the start of the new year, disclosures show Aitken gave two tickets to an Anaheim Ducks vs. Bruins game to Derek Smith, political director for the local branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
During her campaign, campaign disclosure records show Smith ran a political action committee that spent over $138,000 promoting Aitken’s candidacy.
When asked about the donation, Aitken said she wanted to support a group that “represents Anaheim working families,” but was unable to confirm who actually used the tickets after she gave them to Smith.
Aitken also gave two tickets to the Anaheim Firefighters Association, which spent over $72,000 on ads endorsing her campaign according to campaign finance disclosures.
Anna Humphrey, listed on LinkedIn as a partner with Aitken’s campaign consultant Overland Strategies, got two tickets after Aitken spent over $260,000 on her firm for advertising in the last election according to the ticket disclosures and Aitken’s campaign finance disclosures.
Balma, the political science professor at Fullerton College, questioned why any major campaign donors would be able to receive tickets.
“The major donors who can well afford to pay for their own seats — I have a problem with. Those should be for nonprofits, a nonprofit could auction it off and raise money,” Balma said. “Why is a for profit company giving free tickets to the city that are now being used for political favors?”
Between the end of February and April 15, Aitken recorded giving nearly $3,000 worth of free tickets to her Chief of Staff Berenice Ballinas, giving her access to multiple Ducks games, a Franco Escamilla comedy show and a Los Tigres del Norte concert.
Hugo Ambriz, an intern on Aitken’s campaign according to his LinkedIn page, got four free tickets for a Ducks vs. Flyers’ game valued at nearly $500 according to the disclosures.
She also handed out free tickets to other political figures in the county, with two free Ducks tickets to Santa Ana Councilman Phil Bacerra and four Angels tickets to Jorge Gavino, club president for Anaheim Democrats listed in the disclosures.
Aitken was the only member of the city council to return requests for comment on this article.
Councilman Carlos Leon
Compared to his colleagues, Councilman Carlos Leon gave the most tickets to community groups and schools.
According to his ticket disclosures, just over half of Leon’s tickets went to nonprofits like the LGBTQ Center and the Anaheim Family YMCA.
He also gave tickets to several schools, including St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School and the Anaheim Union High School District.
The rest of his tickets went to city staff members, including his personal aide Taylor Griffin according to the disclosures.
Leon only disclosed using tickets for himself twice, once to visit Angel Stadium on opening day and for a Ducks vs. Kings game in April.
Leon did not return requests for comment on this story.
Councilwoman Natalie Meeks
Councilwoman Natalie Meeks gave around 40% of her tickets to various charities and schools, including Troy High School and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Anaheim according to her disclosures.
But a large number of her tickets also went to specific people, highlighting residents like Melissa Harter for their volunteer work in the disclosures.
On Facebook, Meeks is friends with only one Melissa Harter, but she goes by a slightly different name: Melissa Harter-Meeks.
According to her disclosures, Meeks has given Harter 14 tickets to various sporting events, including Angels, Ducks and Harlem Globetrotters games.
She also gave more than 20 tickets to Jake and Nancy Green, citing their volunteer work but it remains unclear what, if any, relation they have to Meeks beyond receiving tickets.
It also is unknown what volunteer work they did to merit two dozen tickets in six months because the disclosures don’t specify.
She also recorded giving six tickets to former Anaheim Fire Captain Steve Brio, who donated $100 to her campaign according to separate disclosures.
Meeks did not return requests for comment on this story.
Councilman Jose Diaz
Councilman Jose Diaz gave the most tickets to city police officers – giving 30 of his 107 tickets in the past six months to cops, according to ticket disclosures.
Diaz also disclosed giving two tickets to a Ducks game to a group called Cops 4 Kids aimed at building “positive relationships” with kids and police and to provide kids with programs to sway them away from gangs, drugs and crime.
Those tickets came after the Anaheim Police Association spent over $43,000 supporting his 2020 election campaign, through robocalls and mailers according to campaign finance disclosures.
Diaz voted against a campaign reform proposal that would have blocked voting on any item that benefits a campaign donor or political action committee last year, arguing that it would’ve prevented him from running his campaign in 2020 by limiting his ability to fundraise.
The councilman also gave tickets to various schools, staff members, St. Columban Catholic Church and nonprofits all listed in his disclosures.
In December, he gave Brenda McGuire, community relations manager for Republic Services – the city’s trash contractor – two tickets to a Phil Wickman concert at the Honda Center according to his disclosures.
Diaz also disclosed he used 15 tickets on himself for four events – two Angels games, a Muse concert at the Honda Center and a Monster Jam event at Angel Stadium.
The tickets he gave himself were worth over $2,400, according to the disclosures.
Diaz did not respond to requests for comment.
Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava
Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava gave herself 26 tickets collectively worth over $4,200 in her first six months in office, according to her disclosures.
A majority of the tickets she used herself were for Ducks games, and she disclosed giving out 104 tickets in total over the last six months.
Rubalcava also disclosed giving tickets to Anaheim High School, St. Paul’s Lutheran School, Hephatha Lutheran School, Zion Lutheran Church, along with nonprofits like Access California and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Anaheim.
The tickets she sent to schools and school programs were collectively worth $2,650, according to the disclosures.
Fourteen of Rubalcava’s tickets, which together were worth almost $2,000, went to staff members according to the disclosures.
Sixteen of her tickets went to five people the Voice of OC could not identify, mainly rewarding volunteer or public service according to the disclosures.
Rubalcava also gave four Monster Jam tickets worth $300 to Paul “Peanut” Moreno, president of the Ironworkers Local 433, in January according to the disclosures.
In March, she gave Keith Harkey, business manager for the same union, four tickets to a Ducks game – worth $700 according to the disclosures.
Rubalcava did not respond to requests for comment.
Councilman Stephen Faessel
Councilman Stephen Faessel gave 38 of his tickets – worth around $6,000 – to city staff members, according to the ticket disclosures.
Eight Angels tickets went to Nam Bartash, his senior policy aide, with other tickets going to the Human Resources Department, the police department and other staff members.
Faessel also gave out 26 tickets – worth over $3,600 – to local schools according to his disclosures.
He also gave out tickets to Anaheim Family YMCA, ICNA Relief, St. Columban Catholic Church, Cypress College Foundation and the Anaheim Hill Rotary club according to the disclosures.
One of the nonprofits Faessel gave tickets to was Eli Home – a nonprofit that helps abused children founded by Lori Galloway, a former city councilwoman.
Galloway ran for Mayor last year, but lost to Aitken.
Voice of OC could not identify many of the individuals Faessel gave tickets to, but many were rewarded tickets for “Encouraging or rewarding significant academic, athletic, or public service achievements by Anaheim students, residents or businesses,” according to the disclosures.
In all, Faessel disclosed giving out 187 tickets over the last six months.
He did not respond to a request for comment.
Councilwoman Norma Campos-Kurtz
As the most recent member to join the council, Campos-Kurtz has used less tickets than anyone else on the dais.
So far, she’s given to the city’s police union, the Yorba Linda High School Theater Program and Anaheim high School, along with some small donations to community members and city staff.
She also gave herself tickets to one Ducks game.
Noah Biesiada 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 @NBiesiada.
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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