Anaheim leaders give out hundreds of free tickets every year to events at Angel Stadium and the Honda Center, but a new investigation into alleged corruption at city hall found the city has failed to stop those tickets from going into the hands of special interests for years.
While the city has a policy that requires city leaders to state a reason for giving out tickets, investigators from the JL Group pointed out there’s no penalty for violating that policy, and it’s easy to get around.
“We believe this is an area that requires greater regulation and scrutiny,” investigators wrote. “The policy has been somewhat compromised by certain public officials potentially not adhering to the enumerated justifications for behesting tickets.”
In their report, investigators found many of the same people who allegedly helped improperly direct millions in taxpayer dollars to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce were the same ones who got tickets to the best shows in town.
Lauren Torres, the City Council services coordinator who oversees the tickets, claimed most of the tickets went to nonprofits in an interview with investigators.
“Torres said they were primarily used for non-profit organizations requesting these tickets for silent auctions, as a way to help them fundraise,” investigators wrote. “When asked if the City tallies the total value of the distributed tickets, Torres said ‘Not on my end.’”
But investigators found that from March 2016 to Sept. 2022, the Chamber of Commerce received more tickets than any nonprofit did.
In addition to the Chamber’s tickets, tickets also went directly to former Chamber CEO Todd Ament, lobbyist Jeff Flint and Matt Cunningham, whose wife is the current CEO of the Chamber and writes a blog that investigators say “has been seen as friendly towards the resort community.”
“The Chamber received $18,250 worth of tickets,” investigators wrote. “Between April 2016 to January 2020, Todd Ament received $5,052 in baseball and hockey tickets (32) tickets.”
Ament also received concerts from multiple council members to concerts for Garth Brooks, Marc Anthony and others, while his wife and daughter got tickets to additional concerts.
Ament has pleaded guilty to fraud, and the JL Group’s report documents the outsized influence he had over former Mayor Harry Sidhu for years.
Ament’s attorneys declined to comment.
Flint didn’t return a call seeking comment. Voice of OC couldn’t find an attorney listed for Flint.
“Overall, we observed that Sidhu had a close connection to Ament and the Anaheim Chamber and engaged in what could only be described as influence-peddling through Ament,” investigators wrote. “Individuals who wanted to meet with the Mayor had to first go through Ament and then pay some form of tribute.”
Sidhu wasn’t available when a reporter called his home Tuesday.
While most of those tickets came from Councilman Stephen Faessel and former Councilmembers Lucille Kring and Kris Murray, investigators say the problem wasn’t limited to just them.
“It would appear that the disbursement of tickets to political supporters includes virtually every Councilmember including Jordan Brandman, Avelino Valencia, and Jose Moreno,” investigators wrote.
The issue didn’t end with the last city council.
A Voice of OC investigation in June found that since the new city council took office last December, most of the tickets have gone to campaign donors, city staff and political allies instead of local nonprofits.
Former Councilman Trevor O’Neil and current Councilman Stephen Faessel told investigators received too many tickets to ensure they all ended up with nonprofits.
“They would rather give these tickets to someone who can use them rather than to let them go unused and go to waste,” investigators wrote. “This approach could lead to rewarding political allies and thereafter merely assigning a legitimate public purpose that most closely fits the person receiving the tickets,” investigators wrote.
It’s the same concern that was raised by Mayor Ashleigh Aitken when she was asked about where she sent her tickets, only around 27% of which went to nonprofits according to a Voice of OC review of her ticket disclosures. Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
“If we have unallocated tickets, we want people to use them,” Aitken said in a June interview.
To fix the problem, investigators put forward a number of suggestions, including limiting the total number of tickets city leaders have access to, making it easier for residents to find out who is receiving the tickets and appointing an ethics officer to oversee the ticket disbursement.
They also suggested a penalty that would, “Require repayment by the involved Councilmember or City staff member of the value of any tickets behested in violation of this policy.”
After the publication of Voice of OC’s June investigation, Aitken said the city manager’s office was looking at potential changes to make the process more transparent without bringing it before the city council, but nothing has been announced.
“I have asked the CM’s (city manager’s) office to look into how we can make information regarding our ticket disclosures more accessible to the public,” she wrote in a text to reporters.
But in a statement on Monday night, city spokesman Mike Lyster said any potential changes to the city’s ticketing policy would have to be approved by the city council.
“We are still in the early stages of looking at how the information is presented online and evaluating what any potential changes might entail,” Lyster said.
Aitken unveiled a slate of proposed reforms on Monday night, calling on the council to discuss tightening up rules on lobbyist disclosures and calling for an investigation on where millions of city dollars ended up.
Her request did not include any discussion on the city’s ticket rules.
Noah Biesiada 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 @NBiesiada.
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