Former Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu has been wrestling with public corruption allegations from the U.S. Department of Justice over the past year, which ended last month when he signed a plea agreement admitting to the charges.
But he didn’t pay for his own legal defense – his campaign donors did, according to campaign finance disclosures.
To the tune of $300,000.
Jay Wierenga, a spokesman for the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s watchdog over campaign finance regulations, declined to comment on this article, but pointed reporters to the agency’s guidelines for spending.
Under the agency’s rulebook, there’s no mention of elected officials being able to use the funds to defend themselves from criminal prosecution.
The rules say the money can be used to sue someone for defamation, contest an election or recount and to defend the campaign over any alleged violation of campaign disclosure laws.
“Generally, attorneys’ fees and other costs related to administrative, civil, or criminal litigation may only be paid with campaign funds if the litigation is directly related to activities of the committee that are consistent with its primary objectives,” the rules state.
Shirley Grindle, a longtime activist in Orange County who spearheaded efforts to create the county’s ethics commission, said while it’s unclear if Sidhu’s use of the funds was illegal, it should be.
“I don’t think Sidhu’s campaign funds should be used to pay for legal expenses for his criminal activities,” Grindle said in an interview. “I think it’s morally and ethically wrong.”
She said it would ultimately be up to City Attorney Rob Fabela to review whether or not Sidhu’s campaign spending broke any city laws.
In a statement to Voice of OC, city spokesman Mike Lyster said the city rule “does not specifically speak to the use of campaign funds for legal expenses,” and said it would be up to the Fair Political Practices Commission to decide if any rule was broken.
When news broke in May 2022 that Sidhu was under investigation by the FBI for illegally aiding the LA Angels in their attempt to purchase Angel Stadium in exchange for $1 million in campaign support, he had over $340,000 in his campaign account and was gearing up for an election in the fall.
But after his resignation that month, Sidhu didn’t close his campaign accounts.
Instead, he kept them up to date, recently updating the name of his account to “Harry Sidhu for Mayor 2030.”
Throughout the past year, Sidhu repeatedly maintained his innocence through his lawyer, Paul Meyer, insisting that his resignation from the city council was not an admittance of wrongdoing.
“A fair and thorough investigation will prove that Mayor Harry Sidhu did not leak secret information in the hopes of a later political campaign contribution,” Meyer wrote in a May 2022 statement. “The negotiations followed accepted lawful practices used in all major business negotiations.”
According to his disclosures at the end of 2022, Sidhu paid Meyer $300,000 out of those campaign funds last year, leaving him with just over $40,000 in the account.
Meyer declined to comment on the payments when asked by Voice of OC.
Former Councilwoman Denise Barnes, a frequent opponent of Sidhu’s when she was on the dais, said she’d never heard of a politician using campaign funds to pay for a criminal defense attorney.
“That’s pretty bad,” Barnes said when asked about Sidhu’s spending campaign funds on his legal defense. “That’s extremely improper.”
Barnes notes that candidates usually keep a buffer between them and campaign funds by having a treasurer – the idea being that there’s another set of eyes questioning expenses.
“Usually a treasurer or someone else has to handle it,” Barnes said.
Sidhu has been his campaign’s treasurer since at least January 2022, according to his disclosures.
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.
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.