Independent investigators looking into alleged corruption and outsized corporate influence at Anaheim City Hall are calling out what a terrible job city leaders and staff are doing when it comes to tracking public records and messages.

Sloppy record keeping makes it much tougher – for both residents and investigators – to monitor whether or not elected officials, city administrators or lobbyists are engaged in illegal activities.

According to their report, investigators from the JL Group reviewed “nearly 1,000,000 emails,” and “over 50,000 documents,” but they’re still not sure they actually got to review all the records related to the scandal brewing at city hall.

A major issue identified by investigators is that after the city was sued by the People’s Homeless Task Force and ordered by a court to hold onto all relevant records, it’s unclear if they actually did.

Officials were never able to access the former phones of Mayor Harry Sidhu or former Councilman Trevor O’Neil. 

“The City of Anaheim’s electronic retention policy did not necessarily include all electronic devices,” investigators wrote. “The inability to conduct a forensic examination of former Mayor Sidhu’s and former Councilmember O’Neil’s telephones impeded this investigation.”

Investigators also noted it was unclear if city leaders violated the Brown Act, California’s chief public open meetings law, during city meetings because they didn’t have access to enough council members’ cell phones. 

“Although there was a great deal of suspicion concerning elected officials texting during City Council meetings to each other and to outside individuals in violation of the Brown Act, there was insufficient evidence uncovered to prove this has occurred,” investigators wrote. 

“However,” they continued. “The practice of text messaging at the dais during City Council meetings has continued, and will likely continue to create doubt and suspicion with the public as to whether any such actions may be violations of the Brown Act.” 

Do Public Officials Have To Disclose Texts From Private Devices? 

While public officials are technically required to turn over any public messages or emails on their personal devices, nobody else reviews the device to make sure it was properly done, meaning politicians can decide what they do or don’t disclose to a public records request if it’s not a city device because there’s no one looking. 

In California, and many other states, open records laws ensure that any resident can demand to inspect these types of records at their city hall. 

David Loy, legal director for the First Amendment Coalition, had a short piece of advice for local officials who use or want to use their personal accounts to conduct city business – don’t. 

“Short answer is the easiest thing is simply don’t do it. If you don’t want to create the problem, just don’t do it,” Loy said in a Tuesday interview. “Keep your public and personal business separate and you won’t have these problems.”

That opinion was backed up by a statement from Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel for ACLU SoCal. 

“Government cannot avoid the reach of the (California Public Records Act) by using private devices or e-mails,” Eliasberg said in a statement on Wednesday morning. “If the communications are government-business they are subject to disclosure.” 

Yet that seems to still happen.

The JL Group’s investigation found that city leaders frequently used personal emails and phones to avoid having to disclose communications under the Public Records Act, California’s chief law that requires public officials. 

In one instance, Annie Mezzacappa, Sidhu’s chief of staff, signed a form stating that neither she nor the mayor used their personal emails for city business. 

Investigators disputed that.

“Our investigation revealed that Annie Mezzacappa’s emails were forwarded by her from her email to her personal address,” investigators wrote. 

“Ms. Mezzacappa acted appropriately and in good faith at all times in terms of responding to CPRA requests. Any implication in the Anaheim investigative report to the contrary is erroneous,” said her attorney, David Wiechart. 

In their report, investigators pointed out that from their own review and the FBI affidavits, it was clear that Sidhu went out of his way to obscure or destroy records of his communications with the LA Angels and others, and there wasn’t much city policy did to stop him. 

“The fact that Mayor Sidhu did not produce emails pursuant to CPRA requests by multiple organizations and individuals…demonstrates his willingness to obstruct a lawful CPRA request, all while willfully destroying the records being sought,” investigators wrote.  

“This was not an act of omission. It was an act of commission and self-preservation,” they continued. “An argument may be made that Sidhu’s comments constitute a conspiracy.”  

When called for comment on Wednesday, a woman answered the phone at Sidhu’s home, said he was unavailable, and hung up. 

Calls to Sidhu’s lawyer, Paul Meyer, went unreturned as of publication. 

Loy said that even if the emails or messages are sent from a private account, public officials are still required by law to make sure they make their way into the light by searching their own devices. 

“Messages and texts are not exempt from the public records act simply because they’re sent on a private device or account, as long as they retain to the public’s business,” Loy said. “If they’re going to do business, those remain public records, and if the city gets a records request that implicates (the messages), the officials have a duty to cooperate with that.”

City Spokesman Called Out For Not Turning Over Records

Mike Lyster, the city’s spokesman who was directly mentioned in the report multiple times for having sat in on meetings with Ament and Flint, was directly called out by investigators for failing to turn over records from his private phone for their review.

“It was determined that Lyster had been using a personal mobile device to conduct City business,” investigators wrote. “This lack of access to Lyster’s device or records hampered JLG’s investigation.” 

Because Lyster did city work on his personal phone, the records weren’t accessible by the city, and weren’t turned over to the investigator’s forensic examiner. 

It is unclear from the report whether or not Lyster was asked by investigators to turn over his phone, and he hasn’t answered questions about it. 

In a text to reporters on Monday night, Lyster said he kept his personal phone because reporters were “familiar,” with his number. 

“It has served well for me to maintain a consistent number, with any public business done treated as such, without cost to Anaheim taxpayers,” Lyster said. 

Lyster did not respond to multiple followup questions clarifying whether or not he turned his phone over to investigators.  

How Can The Disclosure Gap Be Fixed? 

To fix the problem, investigators had multiple ideas they laid out at the end of their report. 

First, they recommended the city hire or appoint a “ombudsman/public affairs ethics officer,” who would be responsible for overseeing Public Records Act requests, political contributions, lobbying and other potential conflicts of interest in the city. 

“The position should be a regular employee position, nonpartisan and based on merit and cannot be removed but for proven misconduct, incompetence and/or malfeasance,” investigators wrote. 

They also recommended a new policy for personal devices being used at work that would make it easier for future investigators to find copies of any communications, along with requiring the city to hang onto records for a longer time. 

“Implement an enterprise-wide Bring Your Own Device to work policy to ensure any personal device used is technically appropriate for City business,” investigators wrote. “And any resulting ESI (electronically stored information) is ultimately available for any future investigations or legal demands.” 

They also recommended that all documents be retained for employees “beyond 30 days,” and require that all records from elected officials be saved for at least two years. 

Loy pointed out again that the simplest way to avoid the records being locked away was to keep them all on accessible city accounts and devices. 

“It’s best practice to do everything on official accounts,” Loy said. “You can’t disclose what you don’t retain.” 


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