As Anaheim residents anxiously wait to see the blacked out results of a $1.5 million independent investigation into alleged corruption at city hall, the city council is expected to consider sending the untouched findings to California Attorney General Rob Bonta.
It comes amid questions from some residents on whether some city council members are interjecting themselves too much into the investigation and just how obscured the version of the report residents will get to see will be.
At Tuesday’s 5 p.m. meeting, City Council members are also expected to consider publicly releasing a redacted version.
Council members will also consider sending an unredacted version to the FBI, a move proposed by city staff, according to the agenda report.
It’s a report residents say they hope leads to accountability and restored public trust in Anaheim City Hall.
“If it’s heavily redacted, that means that a lot of people internally and externally at the highest levels were involved in this corruption of the city,” former City Councilman Jose Moreno said in a Thursday phone interview.
Moreno, who spearheaded the independent investigation last year and its complete public release, said council members should consider minimal redactions.
“If it is heavily redacted, then the council must consider some other action,” he said.
According to a staff report, the final investigation report is 300 pages long and a redacted version will be ready in 2-3 weeks.
Mayor Ashleigh Aitken said in a Thursday phone interview that the redactions are only intended to safeguard whistleblowers and to protect employee privacy.
“If it seems that information has been left out, or there is an incomplete picture, I will work with the city attorney’s office to make sure that there is a justifiable reason,” she said.
“I will not support any redactions that aren’t for the sake of protecting whistleblowers.”
It’s been about a year since a previous Anaheim City Council hired independent investigators and a retired superior court judge to dig into alleged pay to play schemes at city hall in the fallout of an FBI corruption probe.
Now city officials will consider giving Bonta a look under the hood of OC’s largest city by sending him the unredacted version of what the investigators have uncovered at the request of Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava.
“It would be great to send it to a law enforcement agency that actually has subpoena power to review,” Rubalcava said at last Tuesday’s city council meeting.
Rubalcava and the other council members did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Aitken said that there will be no cover up on what happened in Anaheim and supports sending the unredacted report to Bonta adding that federal agents and the county district attorney are already involved.
“I would like as many eyes on the past wrongdoings as possible,” she said.
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s Board of Directors.
Moreno said he supports getting the complete report in front of Bonta.
“The more eyes from those who we trust to oversee and ensure accountability regarding alleged public corruption is important and critical,” he said.
Rubalcava’s push to send the unredacted investigation report to the state AG comes after sworn affidavits surfaced in May 2022 in which FBI agents painted a picture of a shadowy group of political insiders – including Disneyland area resort interests and lobbyists – setting policy discussion in Anaheim.
In these affidavits, federal agents accused former Mayor Harry Sidhu of trying to ram the Angel Stadium land sale through for up to $1 million in campaign support from ballclub executives – the FBI also alleged Sidhu shared critical information with the club during negotiations.
Shortly after that bombshell hit, Sidhu resigned and former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament – an alleged ringleader in the shadowy group – pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Sidhu – though his attorney has maintained he committed no wrongdoing – has not been charged with a crime.
The controversial Angel Stadium land sale was also canned in the wake of the federal corruption probe.
Bonta is the same state attorney general who last year was willing to allow that stadium land sale to go through, despite stating it violated the state’s surplus land act.
In April, he fined the city $96 million and was going to let the deal continue as long as the city added additional affordable housing requirements. Anaheim was going to pay that fine into an affordable housing fund by restructuring the back end of the deal.
A month later, Bonta successfully asked an Orange County Superior Court judge to pause on the sale after the FBI informed his office they were investigating the land sale process.
Former Councilwoman Denise Barnes said in a Thursday phone interview that Bonta’s decision before the FBI informed his office was a bad call but supports him looking at the findings.
“This would give him a much better clearer look at how the city was being run and the behavior of City Hall at the time. And see if he can’t build a case,” she said.
Are Council Members Meddling in the Investigation?
Moreno and residents like Fred Sigala however have concerns that Rubalcava and council members have interjected themselves into and interfered with the investigation.
Especially after Rubalcava and council members put a gag order on investigators to stop them from speaking to the press.
In a recent OC Register article, Rubalcava said she had heard investigators may recommend making changes to how the city handles ticket disclosures on who gets Anaheim’s free tickets to city owned venues.
Sigala, a city Parks and Recreation commissioner and a member of the Better Anaheim resident group, reached out to the Register and said they were told Rubalcava had heard it from people who were interviewed by investigators.
“The potential harm caused by Rubalcava discussing investigation interviews before findings are released, then sharing hearsay interview information with the OC Register should be scrutinized further by both the Anaheim City Council and the public,” Sigala wrote in a text.
Aitken refused to comment on the issue.
Moreno said the intent of the investigation was to keep it away from council members and staff as much as possible.
“It’s been inappropriate, frankly unethical, for any council member to interject themselves into the investigation the way that some of these council members have done,” he said.
Moreno adds that council members speaking to people who have been interviewed may shape how others respond to investigators.
“When it comes to this investigation, it seems as a body, they’ve sought to limit the level of transparency, limit the amount of resources that (investigators) needed, and to really limit the independence of this investigation,” he said.
Aitken said she wants to make sure people are confident in the independent investigation they paid for.
“I believe at the end of this process, the public will be really confident that the product that the JL Group has delivered is an independent and thorough analysis of the wrongdoings of the prior administration,” she said.
Moreno also has concerns that all the monthly progress reports from the judge overseeing the investigation have not been made public.
Voice of OC put in a public records request for the progress reports on June 7.
On July 3, the city refused to share any of the progress reports that weren’t made public earlier this year.
“It would be unfortunate if the Council or the city attorney’s office or the city manager’s office made a unilateral decision outside of the public realm to not disclose those progress reports in public,” he said.
“They were supposed to be in public. That was the intent all along.”
Aitken also said the residents have a right to see the progress reports that have been provided to council.
What Have Investigators Found?
JL Group Investigators Jeff Love and Jeff Johnson were tasked with looking into the now terminated Angel Stadium land deal and other potential pay to play schemes involving previous council members, city staff and business interests.
In their probe, the investigators – who both have about three decades of law enforcement experience – have publicly told council members they found potential criminal wrongdoing.
Despite this, the current city council in February was hesitant to double the budget for the investigation without investigators going back and limited the scope of their probe despite Love and Johnson stating time and money was needed to build a comprehensive report.
Investigators and Retired Superior Court Judge Clay Smith, hired to oversee the probe, refused to dial their scope back and in the end council members reversed course and fully funded the investigation.
Johnson and Love also said they uncovered issues that may not be illegal but are highly questionable.
In an interview with Voice of OC in February, Smith gave perhaps the only real insight on what those criminal violations could be.
“I’ll just say that we have not been able to fully explain the handling of funds and we’re just looking into that very earnestly. It may turn out that there was no misconduct or it may turnout money was mishandled or misused. We’re just going to have to wait and see,” Smith said.
He would not clarify if he was referring to city money or provide further specifics on the potential criminal violations.
The investigation has sparked the interest of the Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer who, up until February, didn’t say if he was looking into one of the largest corruption scandals to hit the county.
It was at that time city officials allowed investigators to share information with the DA’s office after they asked to do so.
They also gagged investigators and Smith from speaking to the press.
Meanwhile, Moreno hopes the version of the report residents get to see will provide insight on all the different people involved in the alleged shadowy group of insiders who heavily influence policy making in Anaheim behind the scenes.
“What entities were involved? What influence did that end up having on contract services?” he said.
“One of the things that I’m most interested in is what the role of the Disney Corporation was in facilitating organizing and funding this just deep corruption of our politics.”
Aitken said that once the report is released, she hopes to come to the next city council meeting with firm recommendations to “improve policies and procedures” in Anaheim.
“My intent is to quickly review the report and at the next possible council meeting, bring forth a discussion and some recommendations about how we can improve the inner workings of our city,” she said.
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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