The long anticipated results of an independent corruption investigation into the inner workings of Anaheim’s city hall have finally dropped – one that details Disneyland area resort interests improperly steering city hall policymaking.
In all, the report paints a picture of loose regulation over lobbyists, who exert huge influence at city hall along with a serious problem of leaks from city council closed session deliberations, largely to resort and developer interests.
In their over 350-page report, investigators from the JL Group found serious issues with the relationship between city leaders and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, which they said operated “virtually as a money laundering operation.”
The report also states the Anaheim Police Department refused to help investigators unlock city-issued phones for two elected officials – disgraced former Mayor Harry Sidhu and former council member Trevor O’Neil – who were a focus in the investigation.
The Disney and Angels organizations declined to make people available for interviews at all, and leaders of the Chamber of Commerce – namely President Laura Cunningham – refused to hand over vital documents to investigators, according to the report.
Meanwhile, residents in Anaheim – home to the “happiest place on earth” – have waited for about a year now to get a sneak peek under the hood of city hall after an FBI corruption probe rocked the city in 2022, alleging the Chamber of Commerce had an outside control over the city.
Now the wait is over.
On Monday evening, Mayor Ashleigh Aitken released a statement highlighting the report’s criticisms of Sidhu.
“The report released today is further confirmation that the actions of former Mayor Harry Sidhu and those who enabled him were not reflective of incompetence, but instead conscious acts of fraud, greed, and deception,” Aitken wrote.
Aitken said in response to the report she is forming an advisory committee made up of “government, community, business, and legal leaders” with the aim of helping city officials review the report and come up with “concrete reforms,” for the city council to discuss.
“We must ensure that this scandal and the contents of the report lead to meaningful reforms so that corruption never again takes root at City Hall,” she said. “This will be a public-facing process, and I look forward to discussing it with the residents of our city in the weeks and months ahead.”
After declining to speak on the phone, city spokesman Mike Lyster – whose work as a city spokesman is mentioned in the report – said in text that city officials were still reviewing the report’s findings, calling it “part of a process with constructive insights welcomed.”
“We join nearly all in seeing this report for the first time and are reviewing it now and in the days ahead.” Lyster said. “Anaheim has come a long way and is a different city today.”
No other Anaheim City Council members have responded to requests for comment.
Other interests mentioned in the investigative report – like Anaheim’s Chamber of Commerce, Disney or the LA Angels – also haven’t returned calls for comment.
State Senator Tom Umberg, who represents the city and chairs the senate’s judiciary committee, was the first public official to speak on the report’s findings.
“Already as a quick scan, it reads like a soap opera: fraud, helicopters, cannabis, cabals…It’s going to take some time to digest the implications, findings, and recommendations,” Umberg said. “The taxpayers of Anaheim and Orange County deserve a full accounting of this issue.”
“It’s the story we’ve been telling for a long period of time,” said Unite Here, Local 11, co-President Ada Briceno, who currently has hotel workers on strike lines across OC and So Cal. “It’s very hard to see that groups of powerful employers and developers get all these things. It’s just gross, it’s disgusting to see.”
Briceño, who also heads the OC Democratic Party, added that the city needed to continue investigating.
“It is crucial for investigations to continue and to make sure every penny is allocated where it should be.”
Investigators found multiple “irregularities,” with contracts awarded to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim, the city’s tourism bureau, with investigators saying the city didn’t fight to make sure the funds were properly used.
“It appeared to us, based on our investigation, that there was seemingly no real bargained-for exchange between the City and the Anaheim Chamber concerning the payment of these funds,” investigators wrote. “It was as if the City was merely subsidizing the Anaheim Chamber with infusions of money on a near-yearly basis.”
Assemblyman Avelino Valencia, who used to sit on the Anaheim City Council, expressed concerns about the lack of cooperation with investigators from Visit Anaheim and the Chamber of Commerce, adding he was going to ask for the state auditor to investigate the groups as well, in a statement released Monday night.
Investigators said Sidhu and former CEO of the Chamber Todd Ament had a “close connection,” that investigators said “could only be described as influence-peddling.”
“The evidence pointed to the fact that individuals who wanted to meet with the Mayor had to first go through Ament and then pay some form of tribute in order to reach Mayor Sidhu,” investigators wrote. “This could include donations to local organizations, joining the Anaheim Chamber, or participating in other pet projects.”
Investigators also looked at the $6 million bailout Visit Anaheim received shortly after the pandemic kicked off in 2020.
They said a portion of that money – $1.5 million – was the subject of a “conspiracy” between then-Mayor Sidhu, Ament, and Visit Anaheim CEO and President Jay Burress about the money’s allocation to a Chamber-affiliated nonprofit. Investigators say they created a “cover story” for what the JL Group called the “unlawful diversion” of the money.
“The facts show that then-Mayor Harry Sidhu directed Burress to report, if asked about the $1.5 million, that it came from other reserve funds from Visit Anaheim. This cover story was created in order to provide some sort of plausible deniability for the unlawful diversion of this $1.5 million,” reads the report.
Much of the investigation was focused on Anaheim First, a chamber-created resident advisory group.
Investigators say the group became a political data mining operation and a political weapon to target the council’s political minority, but those plans never came to fruition after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anaheim’s independent investigation report comes out over a year after federal agents publicly alleged in multiple sworn affidavits that a shadowy group of Disneyland resort industry interests controlled policy discussions at city hall through the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and lobbyists.
“Concerning the suspicious activities that we discovered, the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce … featured largely in these issues,” investigators wrote.
It’s the very same interests that heavily fund city council campaigns through a series of independent expenditures, along with some direct donations.
Some of the current city council members had their campaigns heavily financed by Disney
“As noted, Disney is the largest contributor to the SOAR PAC, with smaller donations from SOAR members. They contributed over $1.2 million dollars in 2018 and over $1.5 million dollars in 2019. During this period, Disney completed two projects in 2019 and one project in 2021, with one project still to be completed and pending,” investigators wrote.
Other council members ran on platforms of transparency and change, but in the nearly seven months since they took their seat on the dais, no reforms have been proposed with officials saying they’re waiting on the results of the city commissioned probe.
A probe meant to provide answers to residents and hold officials accountable in the fallout of the FBI corruption scandal that rocked Anaheim City Hall.
Through sworn affidavits, including wire-tapped phone calls and testimony from informants, FBI agents detailed pay-to-play schemes in OC’s largest city over major discussions like the proposed sale of Angel Stadium.
Federal agents alleged former Mayor Sidhu tried ramming the Angel Stadium land sale through for $1 million in campaign funds, along with passing critical information to the ball club. Sidhu, who hasn’t been charged with a crime, has maintained he committed no wrongdoing.
The stadium sale fell apart in the probe’s aftermath.
So far, only two people have been criminally charged during the FBI corruption investigation.
Ament, former head of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, pleaded guilty to fraud and other false statement charges last year, and is awaiting sentencing.
Melahat Rafiei, a political consultant who served as a confidential informant in the FBI’s investigation after she was caught attempting to bribe Irvine City Council members in 2018, has also pleaded guilty to attempted wire fraud and is awaiting sentencing.
Since the FBI’s initial affidavits and subsequent charging of Ament and Rafiei, news on the investigation has been scarce, prompting many Anaheim residents to push for the city to conduct its own independent investigation.
That investigation was completed by the JL Group and retired OC Superior Court Judge Clay Smith, who repeatedly told the city council they’d found evidence of further wrongdoing at city hall than what the FBI had publicly released.
The group were tasked with looking into the now terminated stadium land deal and other potential pay to play schemes involving previous council members, city staff and business interests.
While the previous city council unanimously endorsed the creation of the report after the FBI’s findings, city leaders who were elected at the end of 2022 have waffled on just how much of the report to publicly release.
In February, city council members were hesitant to double the budget of the city commissioned investigation, despite investigators stating they need more time and money to produce a comprehensive report.
After public pressure and a series of stories on the investigation by the Voice of OC, officials decided to fully fund the investigation that same month.
In May, city council members hired attorney Scott Tiedemann from the Liebert Cassidy Whitmore law firm to review the final investigation report and make redactions to protect the city from potential employee privacy rights violations.
While residents get to see a blacked out version of the $1.5 million investigation they paid for, other government agencies will get the full report.
Earlier this month, council members unanimously decided to send the unredacted version of the over 350-page report to California Attorney General Rob Bonta as well as the FBI.
Bonta is the same attorney general who was about to let the controversial Angel Stadium sale move forward despite stating it violated the state’s surplus land sale act and fining Anaheim $96 million.
District Attorney Todd Spitzer is also set to receive an unredacted copy of the report. The local DA has not been publicly involved in any investigations or charges of corruption.
Investigators say they met with Spitzer and 15 of his staff members on March 8.
“Specifically, we revealed information concerning what we believed was a potential criminal conspiracy and a theft/wrongful diversion of $1.5 million dollars of public funds to the Anaheim Chamber related to COVID relief funds that were provided by the City to Visit Anaheim in 2020,” investigators wrote.
“It was our hope that the District Attorney’s Office would open its own investigation and would, if possible, share subpoenaed information with the JLG so as to bolster our ability to more efficiently investigate the aspects of our investigation that we felt were potentially criminal in nature.”
According to the report, investigators met with the DA’s office, but it was unclear whether or not the DA had launched any investigation.
Reporter Brandon Pho contributed to this report.
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.
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.
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