Many civically engaged Anaheim residents spent last night reading the same thing.

It wasn’t a best-selling novel or a comic book.

It was a 353-page independent investigation report detailing alleged corruption at city hall – one that painted a picture of loose regulations over lobbyists and described the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce as a “money laundering operation.”

Both of which, investigators say, exert huge influence over city hall – along with Disneyland resort interests who often spend heavily in local elections.

[Read: Anaheim’s Own Look at City Hall Finds Disneyland Resort Businesses Improperly Steer Policymaking]

Former Mayor Tom Tait said in a Tuesday text message that the report is a description of the dysfunction in Anaheim –  one caused by massive campaign spending in local elections by special interests “especially by one large company.”

“This has led to almost complete control over city governance by a powerful few at the expense of the residents. The good people of Anaheim deserve much better from their public officials who are elected to represent them,” Tait said.

The report is answering a lot of questions and confirming concerns that residents have been raising for years – ones that have echoed louder through city hall chambers since an FBI corruption probe surfaced last May.

Jose Moreno, a former city council member who called for the independent investigation, said that the report shows Anaheim was run by a shadow government that crafted the perfect Disney narrative.

A narrative, Moreno said, painted Anaheim officials as honest people looking to build up the city’s wealth to invest back into the community.

They parlayed that narrative through millions of dollars and flooded voters with this messaging and it was propped up by community voices that sold the people of Anaheim out for their own self interest and for their own sense of power and sense of belonging to a VIP group,” Moreno said.

He said it’s why “the happiest place on earth” is home to thousands of residents living in poverty.

“It’s just sad,” Moreno said.

Disney did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Assemblyman Avelino Valencia, who used to sit on the Anaheim City Council, said he was going to ask for the state auditor to investigate the Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim – the city’s tourism bureau, in a statement released Monday night. 

“Further, the lack of cooperation by Visit Anaheim and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce is cause for concern. The potential funneling of tax dollars by these organizations, as highlighted in the independent investigation, demands the need for further examination,” Valencia said.

In a Monday statement, Mayor Ashleigh 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. 

No other city council member responded to a request for comment Monday.

“Now it seems like here’s what we’re going to do as a city: we’re going to appoint a blue ribbon commission? No, you were elected to lead with integrity. Now lead with integrity – put out ideas. What I would want the mayor and any council member to do is put out five things they want to do to cure this and have town hall meetings,” Moreno said.

Read the full report here.

Resident Jeanine Robbins said in a Tuesday phone call that by the sheer size of the report, she knew it was going to involve a lot of city officials, staff members and players.

“It seems to us that it’s a major cultural issue at City Hall. It was all an open secret. Everyone at every level knew that it was wrong And yet, they did it And most of them are still there, which is just appalling,” Robbins said.

Robbins, who’s also part of the People’s Homeless Task Force OC, said while people had a sense of what was going on, nobody realized the extent of city hall officials who were allegedly involved.

She also called for state intervention

“Those who don’t end up in jail should be fired and replaced,” Robbins said. “The state really does need to come in and take over the whole city in order to weed out all the special interests and all of the pay to play politics.”

Jeanine Robbins, a longtime Anaheim resident and activist, demands Anaheim’s internal corruption probe into City Hall be made public once it’s finalized. Like many others following the revelation of the FBI corruption probe, she said Disneyland area resort interests have too much influence over the city council. Nov. 15, 2022. Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Ely Flores, executive director of the nonprofit Orange County Communities for Organized Development, said the report didn’t surprise him.

He said his group has been pointing out the alleged corruption for a long time.

“It reignites our demands for campaign finance reform and for true investment of our public dollars into the communities that are still recuperating from COVID-19 folks,” Flores said. 

“This really ignites the need for a complete overhaul, a system change in Anaheim.”

“The worst disease in the world today is corruption,” said Ely Flores, executive director for Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD). “There is a cure, and that is called transparency.” Residents and community members gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Anaheim on Feb. 27, 2023 for the OCCORD press conference, addressing additional funding to complete the internal corruption investigation. (Omar Sanchez / Voice of OC) Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

For Mirvette Judeh, a longtime advocate for Little Arabia and the Arab American and Muslim community, the findings don’t come as a surprise either.

Judeh said that community efforts to get Little Arabia – a portion of Brookhurst Street with many Arab American owned businesses – seemed to always hit a wall over the years because of the people sitting on the council.

She said it felt like Former Mayor Harry Sidhu, Former City Councilman Trevor O’Neil, former councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae, and current City Councilman Stephen Faessel could not be reasoned with.

“It’s as if they already had an agenda and they had to follow that agenda and they couldn’t deviate from it,” Judeh said.

She said that multiple influential members of the Arab community told her that the designation of Little Arabia was never going to happen with one of them explaining it was because the Chamber of Commerce didn’t want it.

Judeh added that Sidhu had a vendetta against the Arab American community because they supported his opponent Aitken, the current mayor. Aitken ended up narrowly losing to Sidhu in 2018.

[Read: FBI Reveals What Many Anaheim Residents Felt For Years, City Hall is Run By The Chamber of Commerce]

Mirvette Judeh, an Arab American community leader, speaks at the May 24, 2022 Anaheim city council meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The investigation report echoes Judeh’s comments.

People interviewed by investigators described Sidhu as a “pay to play” mayor and said Sidhu refused to meet with developers who didn’t support his campaign.

The investigators also said people had to go through the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce if they wanted to speak to Sidhu and pay tribute in the form of joining the chamber or donating to a political organization.

Meanwhile, investigators say Sidhu tried influencing city staff to work with developers like Greenlaw, who spent money on his campaign.

Last August, the previous city council voted to recognize the area between Ball Road and Broadway along Brookhurst Street in West Anaheim as Little Arabia — after decades of advocacy from community members and business owners in the area for recognition.

[Read: “Little Arabia Exists”: Anaheim Officially Recognizes America’s First Arab American District]

The Arab community weren’t the only people in Anaheim feeling ignored.

Resident Lupe Ramirez said in a Tuesday phone call she was glad to see the report and that Anaheim residents have been shortchanged for a long time by officials who didn’t care about them.

“We knew that there was a certain degree of corruption,” she said. “There was never a consideration about the people from the city council and that was the thing that incensed me the most.”

Facing rent spikes and evictions, seniors living at the Rancho La Paz mobile home park, like Ramirez, went to city council members for help in 2019 calling on officials to enact a rent control ordinance.

But Sidhu’s chamber-backed majority refused to debate the proposal and the former mayor tabled a mobile home park rent control ordinance.

Investigators wrote that the Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee and the hotel association saw an increase in donations from apartment management companies in 2020 – which investigators attribute to a proposed rent control ordinance.

Lupe Ramirez, a resident and activist for housing in Rancho La Paz, addresses the council during the May 24, 2022 meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Fred Sigala,  a resident who has advocated for the release of the report, said he stayed up late reading through the report.

One thing that stood out for Sigala is Sidhu’s alleged practice of giving direction to city staff is also being done by a current city council member.

Investigators said Councilwoman Natalie 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.

“Council member Rubalcava’s direction to Ramirez violates the city charter where she attempted to influence and direct the city staff member,” reads the report. “Such direction should have come from the city manager.”

Robbins said Rubalcava should resign for those actions.

“Any resident who knows anything about this and is reading this report has zero trust in the city right now and in order to restore trust, it needs to basically be taken down to the ground and rebuilt,” she said.

FBI Probe Sparks Independent Investigation

Last year, FBI agents detailed alleged pay-to-play schemes in OC’s largest city over major discussions like the proposed sale of Angel Stadium. 

Federal agents alleged former Mayor Sidhu tried ramming the Angel Stadium land sale through for $1 million in campaign funds, along with passing critical information to the ball club. 

JL Group investigators say that critical information included the appraisal of Angel Stadium.

Sidhu, who hasn’t been charged with a crime, has maintained he committed no wrongdoing. 

[Read: Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu Resigns After FBI Reveals Anaheim Corruption Probe]

Meanwhile, Todd Ament, former head of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, pleaded guilty to fraud and false statement charges last year, and is awaiting sentencing. 

[Read: Anaheim Chamber CEO Todd Ament Pleads Guilty to Fraud Charges, Could Face Decades in Federal Prison]

In an affidavit, federal agents described Ament as a ringleader of a shadowy group of lobbyists and resort interests who held undue influence over city hall.

New Revelations in the Corruption Scandal

In the fallout of the FBI corruption probe, a previous city council canned the stadium land sale and hired investigators from the JL Group to conduct their own probe into potential pay to play schemes involving previous council members, city staff and business interests.

Now what JL Groups investigators have uncovered through interviews with Current Chamber of Commerce CEO Laura Cunningham, Visit Anaheim CEO and President Jay Burress and officials like City Manager Jim Vanderpool is turning heads across Orange County.

In their probe, investigators found multiple “irregularities,” with contracts awarded to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim without much oversight, as well as city council closed session deliberation leaks to resort and developer interests. 

Investigators also said in their report that a portion of the $6.5 million elected officials gave to Visit Anaheim from federal COVID bailout funds given to the city was diverted to an Anaheim chamber affiliated non-profit.

It’s a revelation that has angered residents.

Flores said what infuriates him the most is that during the pandemic – a time when residents were dying and people were struggling to make ends meet – city officials were shifting money to Visit Anaheim and the Chamber of Commerce.

“That money should have gone to residents, that money should have gone to the folks in our communities who were the hardest hit in the pandemic,” he said. “Officials like Mayor Sidhu and folks at Visit Anaheim were more concerned about fattening their pockets instead of the lives of many Anaheim residents.”

Ramirez said around that time, her mobile park kicked off their own food distribution.

“There was nothing coming from the City of Anaheim for seniors and probably every other senior in a mobile park was in the same predicament,” she said. 

Sigala said the city should become more protective of public funds and that there should be an audit of Visit Anaheim.

“There should be more oversight,” he said. “That’s definitely something that needs to happen before we consider ever doing business with these entities again.”

It’s not just who has been speaking to investigators and what has been said – it’s also what has been left out and who refused to cooperate that’s catching people’s attention.

Mainly, Walt Disney company and Angels Baseball.

Moreno said the silence of the two speaks volumes.

“It’s very disappointing that the Disney Corporation and Angels Baseball chose to hide behind their attorneys and not let any officials who were involved in Anaheim’s politics … answer questions to investigators,” he said.

Angels representatives did not respond to requests for comment. 

Cunningham, the chamber CEO, also didn’t respond to requests for comment and the chamber’s attorney refused to let investigators look at vital documents related to the probe.

Anaheim Councilmember Jose Moreno displays a bottle of Fabuloso at a July 12 meeting. Credit: City of Anaheim meeting broadcast

For Moreno – the lone member of the political minority on the previous city council – the findings capture the essence of what he and community members witnessed when Sidhu was mayor.

“No matter what, a well organized community of residents, neighborhoods, no matter how organic and impassioned they were … it didn’t matter,” Moreno said. “The city council would just vote without much consideration.” 

Judeh said it is no surprise Moreno had trouble getting items placed on city council agendas in his last year in office.

“How is it normal that the District 3 representative couldn’t put anything on the agenda,” she said. “He wasn’t allowed to because he wasn’t serving the chamber, he was actually serving the people of Anaheim.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.


Since you’ve made it this far,

You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford, but it’s not free to produce. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.