What happens when you call your City Hall boss a political “chameleon” in front of public corruption investigators – and your name’s published on their report? 

That’s a question playing out in real time for some employees of the City of Anaheim, whose names have been attached to the July 31 findings of an independent probe that describes political favoritism and abuse of public resources at the “Happiest Place on Earth.”

Thanks to the current and former city staff members who spoke out, the public has gained insights into a City Hall where private developers would allegedly sit at public officials’ desks.

And make demands of city employees in offices wrapped in fear of retribution. 

Some local watchdogs are now expressing concern for these whistleblowers’ fates. 

And are pushing for increased protection.

Yet so far, those attempts – like enacting a protection ordinance for city staff who speak out – have been belittled by a City Council majority who, in some cases, are called out by name in the city-contracted investigators’ report.

One member of that majority, Councilmember Natalie Meeks, this week publicly said the only reasonable reform might be to rebrand City Hall’s fraud hotline.

A hotline which eventually finds its way to City Hall’s top boss.

That boss – City Manager Jim Vanderpool – was described in investigators’ report as someone who would adapt to the prevailing political environment and go to bat for interests favored by former Mayor Harry Sidhu, who this week agreed to plead guilty to federal corruption charges.

[ReadEx-Anaheim Mayor Sidhu Agrees to Plead Guilty to Corruption Charges] 

Sidhu’s plea agreement came the day after current city council members shot down a series of proposed corruption reforms.

[Read: Proposed Anaheim Reforms Sputter as City Council Disputes Corruption Probe Findings]

In a city that the FBI says is tightly controlled by a shadowy Disneyland resort interest network – at the detriment of Anaheim’s working class – some watchdogs have begged the City Council to protect anyone they can.

“Especially those staff who bravely stepped up and offered information to the JL Group, knowing that retribution could be coming,” said Cynthia Ward, a former council aide and city watchdog who has agreed to serve on a mayoral private advisory committee on the crisis, at council members’ regular meeting during public comments on Aug. 15.

“We have to protect them.”

JL Group investigators – hired by City Council members in response to revelations of an existing FBI probe last year – say employees were reluctant to speak with them in the first place. 

“Many city employees who were interviewed in this matter voiced their concerns over possible retaliation in response to their participation in this investigation and were advised to report any such behavior to the City’s Human Resources Department, or any other official state and/or Federal reporting agency,” reads the 353-page corruption report.

That fear extended to political consultants, or anyone who was worried their cooperation with investigators would blacklist them from any opportunities at City Hall, investigators said.

Not one council member, at the Aug. 15 meeting, asked Vanderpool about the fear-of-retaliation culture described in the report. 

One of the most vocal city employees quoted in the report is Grace Stepter – the city’s current director of Housing and Community Development.

Stepter is quoted by investigators as saying that she felt her boss, Vanderpool, was controlled by Sidhu and described him as a “chameleon” who adapts to the established political scene.

Vanderpool, for instance, attended an exclusive retreat among Disneyland resort interests and elected officials in December 2020, where investigators said a plot was hatched to withhold $100 million from the city’s general fund — which pays for crucial public services and community resources for Anaheim’s many working-class residents — when resort bonds were paid off and tax dollars freed up.

[Read: Is it Time to Sack Anaheim’s City Manager and Other Top Officials?]

City investigators wrote in their report that Stepter said she once gave city information to a private developer firm, Greenlaw Development, that she felt should have stayed internal, with investigators also writing that she told them that the private firm’s principal, Rob Mitchell, would sit in the director’s chair and order staff around, invoking former mayor Sidhu’s name when staff members pushed back on him.

Mitchell didn’t respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Investigators wrote that Stepter also told them that she recognized, early on, attempts to influence staff at city hall. 

And that she’d seen people leave their positions – or cut their careers short.

“I have sought legal counsel on this stuff on occasion, applied to do different jobs and was ready to leave because of this,” investigators wrote, quoting Stepter. “If you have any ounce of integrity, this stuff makes your blood boil.”

Stepter wasn’t the only one who spoke on the record to investigators. 

“I was aghast, it was very dirty in my opinion,” said Linda Andal, former interim city manager and HR Director, in remarks quoted by investigators about watching police union officials allegedly influence the placement of a gas station for a competitor that supported former mayor Sidhu.  

Jose Moreno was a City Council member from 2016 through 2022. In a Friday phone interview, he said there’s been a culture of fear at city hall, and especially after Vanderpool was hired in 2020. 

“I heard right away from staff they were being asked to sit in meetings with (former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO) Todd Ament and he was sitting in high-level meetings and that made them very uncomfortable,” Moreno said.

Requests for comment from Vanderpool went unreturned as of Friday.

Responding to questions in an email on Friday, city spokesperson Mike Lyster – whose title is mentioned in Sidhu’s federal corruption plea deal as coordinating with the council majority – said: 

“We thank employees for taking part in the report. They are protected against retaliation by both the California Labor Code, which also protects employee privacy, as well as under administrative regulations at the city of Anaheim.”

Moreno said he would ask staff to speak up on certain issues and they would respond that they were scared. 

“They would say, ‘No, I have a mortgage to pay. I have kids to put through college.’ Life, you know?” Moreno said. “I saw them just beaten down.” 

At council members’ most recent regular meeting, Mayor Ashleigh Aitken pushed for protections of staff members willing to put sunlight on internal issues. 

But her efforts – to implement a city hall whistleblower protection ordinance and a hotline for city employees to report misconduct – were dismantled by her colleagues on the dais.

“I thought we had to make something simple for people to potentially report behavior if it’s happening to them in real time,” Aitken said during the meeting. 

“It is the least we can do for them,” said Ward publicly, regarding Aitken’s proposals on Tuesday night.

But Aitken’s colleagues on the dais quickly tore the recommendations apart on Tuesday.

City Councilwoman Meeks said retaliation wasn’t the most pressing finding in the report, and that there was training in place that educates employees on how to report wrongdoing. 

“I just don’t want to create some big ordinance that in three years conflicts with state law,” Meeks said.

She added that a fraud hotline was already in place, and suggested just renaming it to an ethics hotline.

“It could be the Councilmember Meeks fraud – I mean, the ethics hotline and will just be branded with my name,” she said, laughing.

Disneyland resort interests through the Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR) political action committee spent heavily on Meeks in the 2022 election pouring almost $547,000 in support of her campaign through independent expenditures.

Moreno, the former council member, reflected on the psychology of City Hall silence.

Walking into City Hall – “what I found was a lot of abused puppies,” Moreno said. “It was startling – the culture of fear that existed. I’ll say now, I tried to address that with our city manager at the time, and I couldn’t get any traction and in fact found the opposite. He was indifferent.”

Moreno said it changed when former City Manager Chris Zapata was hired in 2018, but it “flipped back” when Vanderpool replaced him.

Anaheim’s current city council majority last Tuesday publicly defended Vanderpool’s ethics from the dais, with two members – Jose Diaz and Natalie Rubalcava – criticizing the city investigators’ report as riddled with errors and even misspellings.

According to the city’s independent investigation report, Anaheim’s city manager before Vanderpool, Chris Zapata was fired for questioning the $6.5 million bailout to Visit Anaheim in March 2020, just as the pandemic kicked off – to advertise a resort district that wouldn’t reopen for another year.  

In their report, investigators raised concerns about diverting $1.5 million from that bailout to an Anaheim Chamber of Commerce-controlled nonprofit. 

[Read: Anaheim’s Own Look at City Hall Finds Disneyland Resort Businesses Improperly Steer Policymaking]

Moreno said all this has many City Hall staff members concerned.

He noted that several have “asked to meet me in private … and they shared how council members would berate them after meetings, if they didn’t say the right things during the meeting, if they shared their honest opinion that didn’t fit the agenda of the council member, which we now know is the shadow government.”

City investigators wrote in their report that Stepter told them she pushed back on her bosses when she thought something was awry.

One case highlighted in the investigative report involved Greenlaw developers, with investigators writing that Stepter recalled she once told Vanderpool she was “not going to put my reputation that I have established at the State and Federal level in jeopardy for some local shenanigans.”

On Tuesday, weeks after her statements to investigators were made public, Stepter had to publicly answer questions in front of Vanderpool during a discussion about city-owned property on Anaheim Boulevard and Ball Road.

The reason for that discussion:

Greenlaw had unsuccessfully sought to get around new state public land rules — and to buy the site for commercial development and retail use. 

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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