Orange County residents just got a front row seat to how special interests influence city leaders through their chosen agents – lobbyists.
The results aren’t inspiring.
An investigation by the JL Group, commissioned by the city of Anaheim, found the city’s regulatory approach failed to ensure transparency, with multiple lobbyists accused of hiding their meetings or improperly influencing city leaders.
That kind of influence at Anaheim city hall has been a major influence leading to millions in taxpayer dollars being misspent with little review or oversight according to the investigator’s report.
“We observed that there has been a lack of oversight and meaningful enforcement concerning lobbying in the City,” investigators wrote.
Yet the issue goes well beyond Anaheim, and the report is sparking a local debate on what exactly a lobbyist is and who should be required to register when they try to influence policy at city halls.
What is a Lobbyist?
California’s Fair Political Practices Commission defines a lobbyist as anyone “Who is compensated to communicate directly with any state, legislative or agency official to influence legislative or administrative action on behalf of his or her employer or client.”
But the practice is something that few are willing to talk about publicly.
Even Denah Hoard, executive director of the Orange County Ethics Commission, which oversees the county’s lobbyists, declined to comment beyond clarifying the county’s rules for lobbying.
While there’s nothing illegal about special interests hiring advocates to plead their case in front of elected officials, having professional advocates go up against residents’ interests can create an imbalance at city hall, according to the investigators.
In one instance, investigators pointed out how a nonprofit called Anaheim First, which was run by the Chamber of Commerce and set up by local lobbyists, worked as a “thinly veiled data mining operation,” that was designed to push tax dollars back to the Chamber.
“We conclude that had Anaheim First been funded at any level, the Chamber would have received large sums of money,” investigators wrote. “We further conclude there was a general plan that certain lobbyists operating in the city would have a hand in this activity deriving profits for themselves as well.”
Each city in Orange County has slightly different rules on how to handle lobbyists, but they all define lobbying as being paid to influence the outcome of legislation or policy.
Most cities and the state have various carve outs to let people not register, including not requiring company employees, members of the press or public commenters to register as lobbyists.
According to the county’s disclosures, there are nearly 80 registered lobbyists working for around 300 clients at the county level.
In Anaheim, disclosures show there are currently 20 registered lobbyists representing around 30 clients.
Investigators Call out Anaheim Lobbyists For Disclosure Failure
Anaheim’s investigators called out multiple lobbyists for failing to properly disclose all of their meetings and work in their report, including one of Orange County’s longest working lobbyists, Curt Pringle.
He started his lobbying firm, Pringle and Associates, in 1999 according to the company’s website, after he left the state Assembly where he served as the last Republican Speaker and before he was elected to the Anaheim Mayor’s seat in 2002, where he served until 2010.
Throughout the report, investigators detail how Pringle helped the city’s Chamber of Commerce rise to power and helped move policy from out of the limelight, with one source calling him the “Godfather,” of local politics.
Todd Priest, one of Pringle’s former employees and now a competitor with his own lobbying firm, said Pringle would often take him into meetings to avoid having to register as a lobbyist himself.
“Curt never wanted to fancy himself a lobbyist,” Priest said in interviews with investigators. “He’d want me in the room because I was the registered lobbyist. But by having Curt, I mean nobody cares about Todd Priest. Having the former Speaker sitting there is what mattered.”
Investigators also claimed he failed to report multiple meetings with city staff and elected leaders, pointing to 22 meetings they said he may have failed to report.
Pringle insists all his work was properly disclosed under Anaheim’s rules in a statement released last week, but declined to sit for an interview.
“We believe we have abided by these requirements, contrary to some of the references from the third party report,” Pringle said in a statement sent to reporters seeking comment on the allegations in the report. “There are many other statements that we believe are not accurate or more properly could be construed as ‘gossip’ in the report that are not factual.”
Jeff Flint, another former employee of Pringle’s, was also called out in the report for his work for failing to disclose his work lobbying, along with Todd Ament, the former CEO of the Chamber of Commerce.
“Along with Todd Ament, he (Flint) was involved with lobbying activities for a wide array of clients (high profile clients, developer clients and hoteliers among others), policy making and advising to the highest levels of the City,” investigators wrote.
“We believe that both Jeff Flint and Curt Pringle may have knowingly submitted false reports,” investigators continued. “The greater weight of the credible evidence demonstrates that Todd Ament appears to have violated the lobbying ordinance repeatedly by failing to register.”
Flint has not returned requests for comment, while Ament’s lawyers declined to comment.
Pringle and Flint have not been charged with any crimes, but Ament pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud, falsifying his tax returns and for lying to a mortgage lender in the wake of last year’s FBI affidavit filed in court that stopped the sale of Angel Stadium.
Ament is currently awaiting sentencing.
Irvine Also Struggles To Regulate Lobbyists
Lobbyists failing to disclose all their work isn’t an issue that’s just limited to Anaheim.
There are 10 registered lobbyists at Irvine city hall representing 10 clients.
Melahat Rafiei, former head of the county Democratic Party and a prominent political consultant, was called out for her work in Anaheim by investigators, who claimed she didn’t properly disclose her lobbying work when she tried to get a retail cannabis proposal ordinance approved.
Earlier this year, Rafiei pled guilty to attempted wire fraud and admitted to trying to bribe Irvine City Council members back in 2018 when she was trying to get retail cannabis law approved there, and is currently awaiting sentencing.
But a Voice of OC review of the city’s annual lobbying reports from 2017 to 2019 found no mention of Rafiei or her consulting company on any of the disclosures.
During her time working in the city, Rafiei regularly met with city councilmembers and city staff to discuss policy, as well as push for the legalization of retail cannabis according to FBI affidavits, interviews with city council members, city staff and Rafiei’s signed plea agreement.
While Rafiei was a known political consultant for multiple city leaders, she never disclosed working as a lobbyist.
Alaleh Kamran, Rafiei’s lawyer, questioned the accuracy of the JL Group’s report, saying that they reached out to her but when she tried to follow-up she never heard back from them.
“Accuracy requires ‘completeness,’” Kamran wrote in a text. “If they did not follow up with my office, can they or anyone claim their report is complete?”
Kamran declined to point to any specific errors in the report.
Irvine Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder, a vocal critic of Rafiei and lobbyists’ influence at city hall, said the Anaheim report had “parallels,” to what she’s seen in her city.
“You have this shadow government that’s held power for a decade or more behind the scenes in Irvine and they decide how a lot of the council members will vote,” Treseder said. “No matter who turned out or what we said or what evidence we presented, the votes turned out the same.”
Irvine Councilwoman Tammy Kim, who fired Rafiei as her consultant after news of her arrest became public, said that while she doesn’t think lobbyists currently run city hall, they may have in the past.
“I believe that there were council members who had those relationships (with lobbyists), and I think that’s where the outsized nature comes from,” Kim said in an interview. “When those relationships get outvoted or don’t make it through, then the dynamic is going to change.”
Rafiei isn’t the only lobbyist city leaders have started questioning.
Last month, Irvine city leaders shot down a proposal from promoter Live Nation to operate a $150 million amphitheater.
That deal was negotiated by Patrick Strader, a long time registered lobbyist in Irvine, who publicly represented the company at the council meeting and spoke on their behalf in closed door meetings with city leaders.
But Strader filed no disclosure paperwork stating he was lobbying for the company, claiming that he was doing the work for free and didn’t need to disclose it since no money changed hands, which prompted a lot of questions from council members.
“Clearly he was acting as a lobbyist,” Treseder said. “I think that circumvents the intent of any type of lobbying ordinance.”
Both Anaheim and Irvine city council members appear to be headed toward a major discussion on what lobbying will look like in their cities for the future.
Treseder says she’s looking to set up a discussion in the near future for Irvine to tighten up their lobbying rules.
“I think it’s great to learn from Anaheim and learn from that report and consider all those recommendations,” Treseder said. “We clearly need it.”
Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken scheduled a discussion for the city’s next council meeting to look at multiple ways of improving the city’s transparency when it comes to lobbying.
That discussion will likely focus on how the city hall interactions by large interests in Anaheim, such as Disney, would be regulated.
For example, despite her interactions inside city hall being called out by both last year’s FBI Affidavit and this year’s city investigation, Carrie Nocella, Disney’s Director of External Affairs has never registered as a lobbyist in Anaheim.
While Nocella is repeatedly mentioned throughout the city investigators’ report as sitting in on meetings with Flint, Ament, Pringle and other city leaders for years and was also listed as advising former Mayor Harry Sidhu on the talking points of his speeches, she’s never registered as a lobbyist, according to city records.
Disney spokesperson Jessica Good argues Nocella isn’t a lobbyist under Anaheim’s definition, which states that “a regular employee of an organization communicating to the City during the course of his or her employment,” is not a lobbyist.
Investigators said they heard rumors that Nocella “had bragged about having information concerning City Council Closed Session,” privately, but were “unable to determine if those rumors were true.”
“Nocella was asked to participate in this investigation but, through her attorney, she refused to do so,” investigators wrote.
Anaheim city leaders meet to discuss lobbying disclosures and other reform on Tuesday, August 15.
Noah Biesiada 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 @NBiesiada.
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