Anaheim’s independent corruption probe reveals that a Chamber of Commerce-created, nonprofit “resident advisory group” might have helped one councilwoman get elected, despite getting public tax dollars from the city.  

Investigators say 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. 

“We received this complaint from a local resident and participant in the Anaheim First community district meetings, who complained that, while campaigning for office in 2022, Anaheim Council Candidate Natalie Rubalcava, who was subsequently elected to the City Council 3rd District, contacted her by phone to ask for her support and vote for Rubalcava in the election. 

According to investigators, the resident got a strange answer when they asked Rubalcava how she got her telephone number. 

Rubalcava replied she got it from the Anaheim First contact roster,” investigators wrote in their report released Monday. 

[Read: Private Advisory Group Anaheim First Criticized as it Begins Citywide Study]

Rubalcava didn’t return a phone call or text message seeking comment Tuesday. 

Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava during her inauguration on Dec. 6, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

City investigators questioned in writing whether Rubalcava lied to them during her interview. 

“We did conclude Councilmember Rubalcava was less than candid and forthcoming with us during her interview,” investigators wrote on page 233 of their 353-page report. 

Their concern revolves around Rubalcava’s statement that she “received the complainant’s contact information from the Anaheim First website, that she did so after her election to office, and that she did not obtain or use the Anaheim First binder to discover personal contact information for campaign purposes.”

Former City Councilman and current Assemblyman Avelino Valencia is calling on state auditors to examine the probe’s findings.

[Read: The Talk of the Town: Anaheim Corruption Probe Report Turns Heads in OC]

Rubalcava heads up Valencia’s Orange County office.

According to the report, Rubalcava told investigators that she got a binder full of names and contact information from Keith Oleson, who chaired Anaheim First’s District 3 council and eventually became the group’s CEO. 

Oleson couldn’t be reached for comment.

Investigators cast doubt on how Rubalcava described her connection to Anaheim First referring to its leader in couched terms, calling him “someone in the community” and told investigators she was “pretty sure I got her information off the website because I called everyone that was in my district from Anaheim First.”

Yet Anaheim First’s website has never had phone numbers and other contact information for its members listed on its website – only a general email address, investigators wrote.

For many who have run campaigns before in Anaheim, Rubalcalva’s tactics seem clear. 

“It looked to me that its purposes were political,” former Mayor Tom Tait said in a Tuesday phone interview. 

Former Councilman Jose Moreno believes Rubalcava got the contact list “illegally” and used “those lists to provide herself and advantage of outreach, but also about issues that matter.” 

“The councilwoman certainly has a lot of questions to answer in the community,” Moreno said in a Tuesday interview. 

He said investigators back up his long-held contention that Anaheim First “was a tool to manipulate and control community politics and to vet and develop candidates that would be resort friendly and special interest centered – to join their stable that serve an unelected shadow government of special interests.” 

Last year, city officials announced the city had cut ties with Anaheim First shortly after revelations of the FBI probe surfaced. 

Investigators also consider Anaheim First a political operation. 

“As indicated, we conclude that the initial aspects of the Anaheim First operation was a thinly veiled data mining operation where individuals meeting in the various districts would provide their names, phone numbers, and email information. There was evidence to conclude that some of this information was used for political purposes, which was wholly inappropriate and contrary to the stated efforts of this organization,” reads the report. 

Former Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae, called the investigators’ characterization of Anaheim First “interesting” and said she hadn’t yet read the report and declined to comment Tuesday. 

Before her 2021 appointment to the city council, Ma’ae helped Anaheim First run community meetings.  

[Read: Anaheim Council’s Appointment of a Resort Ally Stirs Calls of Rushed, Politicized Process]

Earlier this year, 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. 

“It sounds like we’re kind of throwing numbers out. You’ve stated that you’re not really sure how much longer it can take. It’s sort of like an abyss of information we’re exploring at this point,” Rubalcava told investigators at the Feb. 14 city council meeting. 

When the council approved the increased funding at the Feb. 28 meeting, Rubalcava publicly accused the investigators of trying to engage in a “potential shakedown” of the city. 

She specifically took issue with investigators for speaking to Voice of OC for a series of profile stories that ran days before the council session where a majority questioned the need for an extensive probe. 

“I have lost confidence in the fact that you guys could actually be neutral,” Rubalcava said. “I get you have a right to talk to the media, but do you think it’s appropriate?” 

Publicly reading parts of the Voice of OC stories from the dais at that meeting, she called the interviews a “potential shakedown of the city.” 

In their review, Investigators found Anaheim First was basically being run by former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament, who pleaded guilty to a series of federal fraud charges last year and awaits sentencing. 

Tait, who served as mayor from 2010 to 2018, was critical of city subsidies for resort businesses during his time on the dais. He also took the state of the city address back from the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and ended the city’s contracts with the business group during his tenure. 

Tait said Anaheim First’s goals were basically set by the Chamber.

“It seemed to be another way for them to circumvent the council minority expressing the views of the residents,” he said,

Councilwoman Natalie Meeks told investigators she volunteered to help Anaheim First, but wasn’t picked by Ament to be in the group’s leadership role. 

“Maybe he didn’t pick me because he knew I was ethical. And my loyalty will always be with doing what’s right and what’s right for the City…. Todd Ament was always a little fishy to me. I had nothing on him, otherwise I would have saved the City, if I had any facts or information, he had done anything wrong,” reads the investigators’ report. 

Ironically, Meeks was elected to the city council by hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures – for things like campaign mailers – from the very same resort interests that Ament made sure got first class treatment at city hall. 

[Read: Disney’s PAC Continues Spending Big To Sway Voters in Anaheim]

Anaheim First, originally created in 2019 under the pretense of advising city council members on how to spend $250 million over the next 10 years, has largely fallen apart since the FBI corruption probe surfaced last year. 

[Read: Private Anaheim Spending Advisory Group Criticized for Ties to Business and Lack of Transparency]

The chamber-created group got $250,000 from the city to start up the initiative in 2019. 

“Two years ago, at our planning retreat, the board of directors — we said we got to do more and we got to step up and do more with community development. So that’s where the idea of Anaheim First was born. We worked with Visit Anaheim, we worked with the Anaheim Community Foundation and said let’s partner together and get some residents involved and start a planning process to figure out how to do this in a big way,” Ament publicly told the Council in April 2019. 

[Read: Anaheim to Let Private Group Recommend City Spending for $250 Million in Neighborhoods]

Moreno lambasted Anaheim First’s apparent data collection operation as a way to get candidates to “join their stable that serve an unelected shadow government of special interests.” 

“When you’re given a binder during an election that is a product of hundreds of thousands of public dollars that went into a community needs assessment and other candidates do not get those binders and list of contacts of active community members, it certainly violates the trust,” he said. 

Investigators say the efforts wouldn’t have gone as far without Ament getting help. 

“In addition to Ament’s planning, the rise of Anaheim First would not have been possible without support of newly elected Mayor, Harry Sidhu and the City Council majority, which apparently shared Ament’s vision to make Anaheim First a vehicle to gain and maintain control of the political landscape by marginalizing the minority,” investigators wrote in the report. 

Moreno echoed Tait’s concerns and said the group “marginalized at least two elected officials … they systematically also undermined the democratic process.” 

Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.


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