“We’re going to get crucified for doing this.”

That’s what Anaheim power broker Todd Ament reportedly told the CEO of Visit Anaheim Jay Buress before they quietly diverted $1.5 million in tax dollars to Ament’s Anaheim Economic Development Corporation, a Chamber of Commerce-controlled nonprofit, according to a report from independent investigators

The funds were part of a total $6.5 million bailout package for Visit Anaheim – a resort advertising bureau – weeks after the pandemic kicked off and later backfilled by federal COVID bailout dollars.

All to help plan advertising for the Disneyland resort area that would be closed for roughly another year. 

[Read: Anaheim Council Funds $6.5 Million Bailout To Advertise Disneyland Resort Area]

Yet they did it anyway. 

And it looks like they almost got away with it without any kind of questioning, much less accounting. 

Right in front of the usual array of taxpayer-funded, rule-of-law institutions like the local city hall, the district attorney and the California Attorney General.

Even the FBI. 

So far. 

A city commissioned corruption investigation report is loudly ringing alarm bells about this transaction and alleged conspiracy, along with a host of others, according to interviews published in the 353-page report released late Monday. 

“Burress’s recollection of Ament remarking, ‘We’re going to get crucified for this.’ relating to the diversion of the $1.5 million diversion to AEDC (Anaheim Economic Development Corporation) demonstrates knowledge of this conspiracy and the wrongfulness of diverting these public funds from their intended purposes,” reads the report on page 182. 

Burress did not return an email sent to his Visit Anaheim electronic address seeking comment. Ament also did not return a text message seeking comment.

At the time the contract was approved in 2020, Voice of OC reporting highlighted the irony of large sums of tax dollars going to tourism promotion from a federally funded bailout meant to help COVID response in some of the hardest hit communities along with a lack of accountability. 

[Read: High Pay for Disney Area Promotion Group Called Out in Email from City Manager After Bailout]

That kind of reporting tone consistently draws complaints from city hall interests. 

“You’re just so negative all the time,” is something I often hear from public officials, especially in Anaheim. 

Yet this week’s seminal report from JL Group Investigators clearly demonstrates why it’s vitally important to have institutions like a strong local press corps that is constantly asking tough questions to powerful interests in real time and pressing for access to public records. 

Especially with billions of taxpayer dollars on the line and countless lives being impacted by public institutions like city hall every day. 

Thankfully, there’s hundreds of thousands of monthly readers across Orange County that believe in this kind of fact-based, frank journalism. Along with, most importantly, nearly 30,000 local donations to back up this reporting since 2020 alone. These folks make it possible to keep all our content available for free to all readers. 

Now, yet another set of fresh eyes – this time from Anaheim’s own city-hired, independent investigators – have taken a very different view than top-level city officials on the inner workings at Anaheim City Hall.

Their public, redacted, report alleges nearly 60 different criminal charges that could be pursued against many of the city’s most influential officials.

The report mirrors the explosive FBI affidavits released last summer – again backing up years of stadium reporting – that terminated a lopsided city stadium sale to a freshly minted development company headed by the owner of the LA Angels baseball franchise.  

[Read: Santana: FBI Reveals The Secret Agenda Behind Anaheim’s Sale of Angel Stadium]

Just like last year during the release of the FBI affidavit and COVID before that, our team is all over the report, working daily to expose the myriad of questionable political lobbying and influence peddling it exposed.

In many ways, investigators are showing the public what FBI agents might be looking at, asking whether all the different political activities from a host of Disneyland Resort district lobbying groups exert undue influence at Anaheim City Hall. 

In their report, investigators wrote they believe FBI agents had to take the unprecedented step of filing a public affidavit in court to halt the sale of Angel Stadium, something that CA Attorney General Rob Bonta was in the midst of signing off on. 

$150 million in cash for the stadium and the roughly 150 acres it sits on. 

[Read: OC Judge Halts Angel Stadium Sale Amidst FBI Corruption Probe of Anaheim Mayor]

Investigators wrote in their report that FBI agents asked to see a final copy of their report. 

Some of what the investigators found:

An alleged political data mining operation masked as a nonprofit from the chamber of commerce helped resort-friendly city council candidate campaigns. 

A host of undisclosed lobbying activity by high-powered power brokers. 

Efforts by resort interests and even some elected officials to obstruct the probe

And Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s lack of attention on the biggest corruption scandal to rock the county in recent years. 

Noting that something is rotten behind the Happiest Place on Earth, investigators suggest a series of reforms: 

An ethics officer to oversee campaign and lobbying disclosures – and to make sure public records requests are thoroughly completed. 

Overhauling the city’s ticket disclosure policies on publicly owned venues like the Honda Center, Angel Stadium and the Convention Center. 

Subpoena powers in administrative investigations. 

Reforming the city’s lobbyist registration ordinance. 

More public engagement on critical issues, specifically citing the shadowy attempted sale of Angel Stadium. 

And cutting off public money to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim. 

All of this should prompt a strong, frank community conversation. 

If that is missed, then Anaheim taxpayers truly have wasted the $1.5 million it cost to produce the investigation. 

So where do we go from here?

Given the lack of interest for reform on the city council dais over the past year, even in obvious areas like lobbyist registration reform, there are real questions about cracks in city hall’s credibility. 

Some activists are already questioning whether it’s time for a special master to oversee Anaheim City Hall.

A host of top officials inside city hall – like City Manager Jim Vanderpool – are called out numerous times in the investigative report. 

Vanderpool was hired by a council majority vote immediately after former City Manager Chris Zapata stood up to questionable dealings at city hall and got fired because of it – especially after questioning Visit Anaheim’s $6.5 million bailout during the onset of the pandemic. 

One wonders if there might be calls now to bring Zapata back.

[Read: Santana: The Anaheim City Manager Who Knew Too Much

There’s even tough questions in the report’s pages for City Attorney Rob Fabela and a host of city attorneys named in the investigation report. 

Same goes for City Public Information Officer Mike Lyster. 

Anaheim’s city hall culture has a hard, team edge, especially when it comes to the press corps. 

Especially at the top levels. 

Indeed, when the stadium sale was on in December 2019, the entire city machinery backed it, aggressively – weeks before city council members even publicly discussed the issue, let alone voted on it.

This wasn’t just former Mayor Harry Sidhu, who has not been publicly charged with anything and has denied any wrongdoing.

If you read the investigators report, it’s very clear that Sidhu wasn’t the only one driving projects at city hall. 

I still remember Lyster telling us back in 2019 when we got banned from one of Sidhu’s stadium press conferences that we just didn’t have a large enough readership to merit invitation to a public press conference at city hall.

A press conference held two weeks ahead of the stadium sale discussion and vote.

It’s the same standard that was applied to Chapman University journalism students trying to work at Anaheim city hall, where they were told by Lyster to file all questions as public records requests because they didn’t merit interaction with public press officers given their small publishing reach. 

My own public interactions with Lyster were covered by the Orange Juice Blog at a local veterans cemetery event in Anaheim where he attempted to limit our reporters’ questions about convention center bonds. 

Par for the course at Anaheim City Hall, the Nastiest Place on Earth. 

That same kind of bullying vibe was on full display from the city council dais toward the investigators earlier this year when they asked for a larger budget of $1.5 million, given the weight of electronic records and interviews they had to conduct. 

Council members got even angrier when Voice of OC profiled the investigators, their scope and the goals of the investigation — ahead of the city council meeting where they tried to limit the scope and cost of the probe. 

[Read: Anaheim Officials Reverse Course and Fully Fund an Independent City Corruption Probe]

Good news is the investigators seem to have covered their costs right out of the gate, identifying a questionable $1.5 million tucked away at the local Chamber of Commerce. 

It always pays to check under the hood. 

And whether the Anaheim City Hall machine likes it or not, you can count on Voice of OC reporters – quality of life mechanics – to stay under the hood. 


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