After residents and community members read a report on alleged corruption at city hall, some wonder if the alleged pay to play culture in Anaheim described by investigators has actually vanished.
Or have some of the players just changed.
Investigators from the JL Group – hired by the city in the aftermath of the FBI corruption probe that surfaced last year – state in their detailed 353 page independent investigation report that not much has changed after last year’s election.
“Several witnesses have expressed concern that circumstances have not really changed, just the participants,” the report reads.
Marisol Ramirez, Programs Director for the nonprofit Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD), said in a Tuesday phone call that she agrees with the witnesses.
“The entire report discusses this culture that exists within city hall and how folks would pass the baton essentially and use entities like the Chamber and Anaheim First to advance the next electorate to continue the status quo,” she said.
Ramirez’s group is now calling for people to step down in Anaheim putting out a press release Friday demanding city officials implicated in the report to resign.
In a statement Monday, Mayor Ashleigh Aitken said she has called for reform discussions like a stronger lobbyist ordinance, a city hall whistleblower protection law and making city officials calendars public at the next city council meeting on August 15.
Jose Moreno, a former city council member who called for the independent investigation, said in a Wednesday phone call some of the current elected officials are on the city council because of the political system called out by investigators
“A good portion of the Council, as currently constructed, certainly benefited and perhaps even owe their seats on that council as a function of how Harry Sidhu, Todd Ament and Jeff Flint operated and coordinated (Political Action Committees) illegally,” he said.
Moreno adds that while faces on the dais may have changed, the same special interests are still very present.
“The resort industry, Disney, Angels Baseball are all still there and they’re still operating, and they still have interests,” he said.
One of the people representing Disney and called out by name in the city’s investigative report is Carrie Nocella, the company’s director of external affairs who, according to city records, has never registered as a lobbyist at Anaheim City Hall.
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 wrote in their report that Nocella refused to respond to written questions, adding that there was a rumor she bragged about having inside information from closed session, city council meetings.
However, investigators wrote they were unable to determine if the rumors were true.
Nocella did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Good said in an emailed statement that Nocella “still is actively employed as Director of External Affairs with Disneyland Resort” in a Monday email.
In her statement, Good also disputed any notion in the investigators’ report that Disney didn’t respond to informational requests or interviews from city investigators.
“The report erroneously states that there were repeated requests for Disney to participate. While Carrie Nocella was asked to be interviewed and her attorney declined, no other Disney staff were ever asked to participate,” Good said.
Indeed, investigators wrote in their report that “the Walt Disney Company” declined repeated requests for interviews.
When asked who else the investigators should have reached out to and what her response to the report was, Good ignored the questions.
City Council members also did not respond to requests for comment.
Investigators’ say they found serious issues with the relationship between city leaders and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce – with chamber leaders as well as the Disneyland resort interests they represent improperly steering policy making at city hall.
They also say there has been loose regulations of lobbyists in Anaheim – a city where developers and resort interests spend heavily on local elections.
Read the full report here.
Their findings echo sworn FBI affidavits that came to light last year in which federal agents alleged pay-to-play schemes in Anaheim over major discussions like the proposed sale of Angel Stadium.
FBI agents also accused a shadowy group of lobbyists and resort interests of holding undue influence over Anaheim politics and named former Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament as one of its ringleaders.
Ament pleaded guilty to fraud and false statement charges last year and is awaiting sentencing.
But JL Group investigators say Ament left a “roadmap of sorts for others to follow” and that there is reason to believe what witnesses are saying is right – only some of the players have changed.
Investigators say this includes the fact that Ross McCune, one of Ament’s closest allies, remains on the Chamber Board of Directors.
“There continues to be a lack of transparency by the Chamber, in that board members are still not listed on the website, no financial audit has been performed, or is planned, (Political Action Committees) still seem to carry a great deal of weight, and lobbying efforts, while somewhat curtailed, continue with little if any accountability,” reads the report.
Investigators interviewed Laura Cunningham, Ament’s successor as head of the Chamber, but the attorney for the Chamber refused to share vital documents that related to the investigation.
City Manager Jim Vanderpool also told investigators that Cunningham was present at a private retreat organized by Ament in December 2020 – that was called out by FBI agents in the sworn affidavits that emerged last year.
Cunningham nor McCune responded to a request for comment.
SOAR & the Grooming of Elected Officials
The way the Chamber of Commerce is operating isn’t the only thing that apparently hasn’t changed since the FBI affidavits surfaced last year.
Disneyland resort interests through the Support Our Anaheim Resort political action committee or SOAR continued to spend heavily on Anaheim’s 2022 Election even in the wake of the FBI probe.
This time they put hundreds of thousands of dollars behind new candidates including current Councilwomen Natalie Meeks and Natalie Rubalcava.
In 2022, SOAR poured almost $547,000 into Meek’s campaign and $380,000 on Rubalcava through independent expenditures on things like mailers and digital advertising.
In 2020, the political action committee spent $437,000 supporting Councilman Stephen Faessel’s campaign, over $400,000 in support of Avelino Valencia, a former city councilman, and $121,000 in support of Councilman Jose Diaz.
Then earlier this year, resort-backed councilmembers sided with hoteliers on a ballot measure that would raise hotel workers minimum wage to $25 minimum wage.
Hoteliers have pushed back against the union-backed measure, arguing it would drive up prices and hinder the resort industry’s success.
Workers argue the increase in pay will help them pay rent amid rising housing costs across the state.
In June, City Council’s resort-backed majority voted to send the union backed ordinance to voters in a special election despite criticism that such elections have much lower voter turnout than general elections.
In July, they voted to submit arguments against the measure.
Resident Jeanine Robbins pointed at the decision and said in a Tuesday phone call that nothing has changed in Anaheim. Robbins herself has publicly argued against the measure.
“It’s still pay to play politics. You can see it with their votes,” she said.
For many, the arguments made against the hotel worker minimum wage measure are reminiscent of those made by Ament and resort-friendly officials against Measure L, a minimum wage measure applied to resort businesses receiving city subsidies, a couple years ago.
The special election will cost taxpayers $1.6 million roughly the same amount of money used towards funding the independent investigation by the JL Group.
In February, the current city council was hesitant to double the budget for the investigation from $750,000 to $1.5 million citing cost concerns – despite investigators saying the money was needed to produce a comprehensive report.
They even called on investigators to dial back the scope of their probe but investigators refused. In the end, council members gave the JL Group the additional money.
Meanwhile, investigators in their report detailed how SOAR was formed as a community group in 2007 with help from Ament and former Mayor and lobbyist Curt Pringle to oppose a housing development project near Disney.
In 2010, the group formed a political action committee and started holding fundraisers.
Paul Kott, a SOAR board member, told investigators that the PAC quickly became a vehicle to raise money and gave Ament power.
“Kott related that Ament would appoint people to be members of SOAR that would align with his political positions to stack things in favor and described him as an ‘influence peddler.’ If someone was being groomed as an Anaheim elected official and were in Ament’s graces, he would have them join SOAR,” reads page 161 of the report.
When asked about that description through email, Good also ignored that question.
Last year, Valencia was elected to the State Assembly leaving the city council seat vacant.
The council appointed Norma Campos Kurtz, who was part of SOAR, to the vacant seat at the nomination of Faessel.
It’s not the first time the council appointed a member of SOAR to fill a vacant seat on the dais.
In 2021, former Mayor Harry Sidhu’s former council majority appointed resort ally and SOAR advisory committee member Gloria Ma’ae to a District 2 vacancy.
In 2022, SOAR poured over $302,000 in Ma’ae’s city council campaign but she narrowly lost to Councilman Carlos Leon.
New Council, No Real Reforms
Despite four newly elected officials joining the city council – including politicians who campaigned on transparency and reform – no real reforms have been introduced in the seven months the council has been in office.
Mayor Ashleigh Aitken and Councilman Leon have said in the past a discussion on reforms would rely on the results of a city-commissioned corruption probe.
Ely Flores, Executive Director of OCCORD, said in a Monday phone call that they expected officials not to wait to make changes like campaign finance reforms to the city when they got into office.
He added that some council members still received money from special interests like SOAR.
“That gives us an indication that maybe they want to continue to benefit from the system that this report is stating has bred corruption,” Flores said.
But reforms may come.
Last week, Aitken said she is forming an advisory committee made up of “government, community, business, and legal leaders” with the aim of helping city officials review the report and come up with “concrete reforms,” for the city council to discuss.
Ramirez called Aitken’s proposed committee a step forward.
“But I also feel like how can you trust who would actually be at the table advising?” she said.
Earlier this year, Aitken told the Voice of OC she has asked the city manager’s office to look into how they can make disclosures of the free ticket city officials receive to events like Angel baseball games more accessible to residents.
The request came after the Voice of OC published a three-part investigative series early this month that found that the city loosely tracks who gets thousands of free professional baseball games, hockey games and concert tickets worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
It also found current city council members and top city executives largely dished out thousands of tickets to themselves, city staffers, political insiders, family members of politicians and city vendors.
Investigators pointed to the article by Voice of OC and said the pattern of giving tickets to political supporters wasn’t new.
They found that Ament and the Chamber were the biggest ticket recipients in the past decade – with tickets coming to him from Sidhu and former councilwoman Lucille Kring.
Ament’s wife and daughter also got tickets from Faessel, Kring and former Councilwoman and SOAR member Kris Murray, according to records.
Most of the tickets Ament got were described to be for economic or business development, according to the report.
“It would appear that the disbursement of tickets to political supporters includes virtually every Councilmember including Jordan Brandman, Avelino Valencia and Jose Moreno,” the report reads.
Investigators are recommending several changes to the city’s ticket distribution including limiting the number of free tickets city council members get and creating a neutral system that distributes tickets to city employees.
Meanwhile, the actions of one new council member is also raising investigators’ concerns.
Investigators called out Rubalcava for engaging in Sidhu’s alleged practice of giving direction to city staff directly – which violates the city charter.
They said Rubalcava directed Sergio Ramirez, the city’s director of economic development, to work with the OC Business Council, Rubalcava’s former employer, to develop small business loans opportunities.
Investigators also said Anaheim First – a creation of the Chamber – helped Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava’s campaign last year by giving her a list of names and contact information taken down when the group was conducting its community outreach meetings
Rubalcava was one of the most vocal critics of the independent investigation and was hesitant to double its funding from $750,000 to $1.5 million.
But pushback from OCCORD helped make sure that didn’t happen.
“This culture is ongoing,” Ramirez said. “But it’s definitely more hush hush right now, because they’re on thin ice.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to indicate that a Disney spokesperson has said that Carrie Nocella is not required to register as a Lobbyist in Anaheim under the city’s current lobbyist ordinance because she is an employee of the company.
Hosam Elattar 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 @ElattarHosam.
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