A scathing 353-page investigation report detailing alleged corruption at Anaheim City Hall is shedding new light on an exclusive private retreat in 2020 hosted by the local Chamber of Commerce which was called out by the FBI in sworn affidavits last year.
Investigators found some of Anaheim’s most powerful and politically connected people were in attendance at the December 2, 2020 retreat at the JW Marriott orchestrated by former Chamber CEO Todd Ament and lobbyist Jeff Flint.
Ament’s attorneys declined to comment Tuesday. Flint didn’t respond for comment.
The guest list included: Former Mayor Harry Sidhu, City Councilman Stephen Faessel, former City Councilman Trevor O’Neil, City Manager Jim Vanderpool and Laura Cunningham, Ament’s successor as head of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, and Disneyland’s Director of External Affairs Carrie Nocella.
Investigators painted a picture of outsized influence on elected officials at the retreat through interviews with Faessel, O’Neil and Vanderpool.
“The ‘Retreat’ was, by all appearances, a strategy session for the Mayor and the Council majority members to gain more control over the direction of the city, by primarily controlling its funding,” reads the report.
Sidhu, Faessel, Vanderpool, O’Neil, Cunningham and Nocella did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
On the agenda, JL Group investigators say, was how to resurrect Anaheim First – a chamber created nonprofit resident advisor group – by devoting $30 million in tax revenue annually to the initiative after the city pays off resort bonds.
Investigators say Anaheim First was really a political operation – one used for data mining to get contact information to help get resort friendly officials like Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava get elected and a way to “freeze out” the city council minority.
After the pandemic put a halt to Anaheim First, investigators say Ament tried to save it in part to provide millions “in lobbying, development and business costs that could go directly to him, Flint and other trusted individuals and entities.”
“It was Ament’s second chance to succeed where he had previously failed with Anaheim First. Unfortunately for him, he would find himself embroiled in an FBI investigation that would sidetrack any ambitions he had concerning this activity,” reads the report.
Ament pleaded guilty to fraud and false statement charges last year and is awaiting sentencing.
Also on the agenda was a streetcar project – proposed and backed by Disneyland resort interests but opposed by a previous city council majority, when Tom Tait was mayor, who viewed it as impractical.
“The Disney resort’s special interests were clearly included and given a priority in this session,” reads the report. “The streetcar project was on their list of favored projects they wished to receive with the help of those attending this retreat.”
“It appears Ament and Flint understood the financial value that could be realized by them by accommodating and supporting the resort interests.”
Planning The Retreat
In a sworn affidavit attached to Ament’s criminal complaint that surfaced in May 2022, FBI agents claimed Ament and “Political Consultant 1”, later identified as lobbyist Jeff Flint, were ringleaders of a shadowy group who held outsized influence over City Hall.
Federal agents say the group would hold meetings they called retreats to “discuss strategy surrounding several matters within Anaheim — matters that were often pending, or soon to be pending, before the Anaheim City Council.”
And the ringleaders, the FBI says, were very careful in who they invited to attend their meetings, taking input on the guestlist from “Company A Employee” – who the Los Angeles Times identified as Nocella.
In the affidavit, the FBI details an intercepted conversation between Ament and Flint debating who should come to the Dec. 2, 2020 retreat with Flint allegedly telling Ament: “the first retreat needs to be, you know, family members only.”
“The implication and assertion made in the affidavit by the FBI agent was that unelected individuals were influencing and manipulating City elected officials with reminders of previous and future campaign support,” reads the JL Group report on page 37.
According to investigators, once the guest list was carefully selected, the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce sent out the invitations.
Look Who’s Coming to Dinner: Attendees Shed Light on Retreat
Investigators said Faessel, who has written about Anaheim’s history, had a limited recollection of what was discussed but provided them handouts from the meeting.
“As far as I was concerned … we were there to meet to discuss the financial condition of the city going forward,” he told investigators in his interview.
Faessel abstained on votes related to the investigation this year, including a request by investigators for more money, and hasn’t really engaged in those public discussions on the dais.
O’Neil told investigators that Nocella, Sidhu, former Councilwoman Kris Murray and “possibly some hoteliers” were present at the meeting that Ament helmed.
Murray also did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Shortly after Murray’s 2014 election to the Anaheim City Council, she and Nocella vacationed together in Europe.
Murray is also on the advisory board of the Support Our Anaheim Resort political action committee Ament helped create – which spends heavily on local elections and which investigators say was used by Ament to groom elected officials.
Jessica Good, a spokeswoman for Disney, did not respond to Voice of OC when asked about Nocella’s participation in the retreat.
O’Neil could also not recall specifics to investigators.
“I probably had forty or fifty meetings with Todd Ament and Jeff Flint, sometimes apart, sometimes together,” he told investigators.
But he did provide investigators with a little insight on what was discussed at the meeting – including a debate on how to limit the agenda of former City Council member Jose Moreno, a member of the political minority on the dais.
“Certainly discussion around Councilmember Moreno and his agenda and potential things that this council could do to deflate those issues and take control of some of the issues, and find solutions that were more palatable to our majority,” he told investigators.
He also said the retreat was often referred to as a strategic planning session and that he attended two similar meetings in 2019.
When the FBI affidavits emerged last year, O’Neil admitted to being one of the elected officials at the retreat at a public meeting and said Faessel was there too.
Faessel, who spoke after O’Neil at that meeting, stayed silent on his participation in the retreat.
Vanderpool also admitted to the Voice of OC last year that he was in attendance at the Dec. 2020 retreat but refused to name who else was present.
At the time, Vanderpool took issue with how federal agents described the retreat in their affidavit and said when he worked in Buena Park, he enjoyed a collaborative partnership with the North Orange County Chamber of Commerce.
“The meeting I attended focused on critical issues facing Anaheim,” Vanderpool wrote to Voice of OC at the time. “If others viewed this as anything other than that, I cannot speak to that.”
He said those issues included: “the pandemic’s economic impact, planning for the rollout of vaccines, the impacted city budget and working toward getting Anaheim’s economy back open.”
Vanderpool went into more detail with the JL Group and told investigators Cunningham was present at the private meeting.
He also told investigators they discussed how to split up revenue freed up once the city pays off resort bonds – including withholding $100 million in taxpayer money from the general fund.
Vanderpool said it was a “good meeting” and recounted a conversation he had with Assistant City Manager Greg Garcia after.
“I told him ‘the Chamber’s filling a void. I’m getting better information than I’m getting from our Finance Department, and it’s a problem.’ And so, he was defending, and I said, ‘I’m telling you, they’re filling a void, and as long as [the Chamber] is existing, they’re doing what we should be doing. And that’s why they are who they are,” Vanderpool told investigators.
Investigators said that while not all three witnesses “were entirely forthcoming,” Vanderpool was the most willing to speak about the private meeting.
When asked if Anaheim First came up at the meeting:
Faessel told investigators “possibly.”
O’Neil told them “probably.”
Vanderpool said “definitely.”
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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