In Anaheim, Disney is the political kingmaker.
And somewhat of a policymaker.
Yet residents rarely see the entertainment juggernaut’s influence discussed in public by city leaders.
Even last week, as city council members had a lengthy discussion about tightening the city’s lobbyist registration and eliminating a huge exemption, which largely keeps Disney’s jockeying at city hall secret, they didn’t once mention Disney by name.
It’s the proverbial elephant in the room heavily detailed in a 353-page corruption report released late July, in which independent city-contracted investigators lay out a web of influence by Disney and other resort interests on City Hall policy making.
In a set of sworn affidavits surfaced last year, FBI agents also detailed a similar situation – a city hall largely controlled by Disneyland resort interests.
This fall, council members are taking up a host of items designed to curb special interest influence such as lobbyist registration, campaign finance reform, even a possible ethics commission.
The city council has historically been against any sort of campaign finance reform measure.
Yet since the scandal broke last year, they haven’t been able to avoid the issue.
Council members have publicly discussed the influence of the Angels, the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and Visit Anaheim in public sessions.
But rarely Disney.
Disney has spent at least $7.5 million supporting city council campaigns in Anaheim over the past decade according to campaign disclosures, becoming one of the biggest spenders in local politics for candidates who then regularly vote to support the resort district.
Through a recorded phone interview with JL Group investigators, former cannabis consultant Adam Spiker said Disney heavily influences decisions throughout the city.
“If they don’t like something, they’re going to kill it,” Spiker said in the report.
Over the years, Disney’s enjoyed friendly policies from resort-backed city council members.
In 2015, the entertainment juggernaut was shielded from a ticket tax on Disneyland by a narrow vote of the city council majority who were backed by Disney.
One member of that majority was then-Councilwoman Kris Murray, who went on a 2014 European vacation with Disney’s chief representative to city hall – Carrie Nocella, the company’s director of external affairs.
After she left office, Murray joined the advisory board of a political action group heavily funded by Disney.
In 2016, Disney was granted a massive hotel tax subsidy on a proposed luxury hotel – which could have been worth $200 million million over 20 years. The city was expected to give $15 million in hotel taxes it produced back to Disney in the first year.
When Measure L started gaining traction in 2018, which mandates higher wages for employees at businesses receiving city subsidies. Disney canceled the luxury hotel proposal and gave up its ticket tax protection in the process, calling the issue “divisive.”
Yet just before the minimum wage ordinance was adopted by Anaheim voters in 2018, the city attorney’s office said it wouldn’t apply to Disneyland – until a panel of appellate judges said otherwise earlier this year.
Disney-backed council members have shot down calls for a gate tax discussion over the years, even when facing a large deficit during the fallout of the pandemic.
A Voice of OC review found the company’s supported candidates and stances on ballot measures had a nearly 80% success rate over the last 10 years.
Disney’s chosen candidates include current Councilmembers Stephen Faessel, Jose Diaz, Natalie Rubalcava, Natalie Meeks and former councilmembers Jordan Brandman, Gloria Ma’ae, Trevor O’Neil, and Lucille Kring.
The JL Group’s investigation also found Disney’s spending lined up with a number of resort area business interests, supporting candidates backed by hoteliers and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce that gave their chosen candidates hundreds of thousands of dollars more in advertising.
Disney’s PAC Becomes City’s Biggest Election Spender
While Disney has constantly invested in Anaheim elections in recent years, they went from spending around $700,000 in the 2014 election to nearly $3 million in the 2018 election.
After the 2016 election, the Support Our Anaheim Resort political action committee became Disney’s primary campaign spending vehicle. Before that, the entertainment juggernaut used to spread money throughout various political action committees.
The bump in political spending comes after the city switched to district elections and expanded the city council from five to seven seats.
It also coincided with a council majority who questioned resort subsidies, led by Republican Mayor Tom Tait and Democratic Councilman Jose Moreno – who both publicly challenged Disney.
SOAR, primarily funded by Disney, became a political funding machine – regularly spending on the same candidates as the Chamber of Commerce, giving those chosen few hundreds of thousands more in advertising spending than their competitors.
Paul Kott, one of SOAR’s advisory board members, told investigators that the political action committee was where politicians the resort loved were “groomed” and became a vehicle to raise money and give former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament power.
“If someone was being groomed as an Anaheim elected official and were in Ament’s good graces, he would have them join SOAR,” investigators wrote.
Ament is currently awaiting sentencing for federal fraud and could face decades in federal prison.
JL Group investigators said he also violated the city’s lobbying rules and peddled influence all over town.
Tait, who was one of the city council’s most outspoken critics of the resort-friendly subsidies until he left office in 2018, said the money from Disney and other major special interests “overwhelms,” the city’s elections every year.
“It floods the mailboxes with campaign literature and if you’re not that chosen candidate, it’s very difficult to even get your message even heard,” Tait said. “The special interests message floods the electoral system and overwhelms it. It’s been that way for a long time in Anaheim.”
Tait added that while what Disney and other big spenders in the city do is legal, it may not necessarily be ethical.
“The special interests need to look at themselves, particularly Disney,” Tait said. “The special interests contribute massively, maybe they should take their foot off the gas.”
Former Anaheim Councilwoman Denise Barnes, one of the few in the city’s recent history to run against and beat a Disney backed candidate in 2016, said the “tsunami,” of special interest spending in the city makes it almost impossible for anyone not funded by the resort interests to win.
“It isn’t like you did a bad job, it’s just they decided to go in a different direction with a lot of money,” Barnes said. “This PAC (political action committee) money just blows you away. It’s so tilted.”
In 2020, Barnes lost her reelection campaign to Councilman Jose Diaz, who had never served on a city commission or appointed position and was politically unknown before he ran for office.
SOAR spent over $160,000 advertising his candidacy.
The only council members to beat a Disney-backed candidate in the last decade are current Councilman Carlos Leon, who narrowly ousted former Councilwoman Ma’ae in the last election, and former Councilmembers Moreno, Barnes and James Vanderbilt.
SOAR spent more than $302,000 to bolster Ma’ae’s 2022 election campaign.
Most recently, Ma’ae lambasted the independent investigation during public comments at the Sept. 12 city council meeting, saying it was rife with inaccuracies and mischaracterizations without pointing to specifics.
“From where I stand this report has led to the city unfairly targeting the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce,” Ma’ae told council members.
Ma’ae, who was appointed to the council in 2021, used to sit on SOAR’s advisory committee and had close ties to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
“You are annihilating a big chunk of the chamber’s revenue overnight,” said Ma’ae, who was part of a chamber-created resident advisory group that investigators said was a political data mining operation.
And the company’s spending goes well beyond Anaheim, with state campaign finance disclosures showing that Disney contributed over $40,000 to Gov. Newsom’s last campaign, and $50,000 apiece to both the state Republican and Democratic Parties.
They also contributed to six of Orange County’s nine current state Assembly members in the last election, and all but one of the county’s state senators.
Does Disney Want to Keep $100 Million Out of City Coffers?
Nocella, Disneyland’s director of external affairs, was called out by independent investigators for attending a private meeting in December 2020 with city leaders.
During that secret retreat, the former head of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce presented a plan to keep as much as $100 million out of the general fund once the 1997 resort bonds are paid off – something city officials seemed on board with, according to the investigation report.
The general fund is the most flexible fund for city officials, it can pay for things like senior services, park overhauls, after school programs and a host of other quality of life issues – in a town where nearly half of residents are on a public health plan.
Disney and Nocella refused to cooperate with investigators, according to the report.
“In the case of Disney employee Carrie Nocella, written questions were submitted, but Nocella’s attorney ultimately declined to have Nocella respond,” investigators wrote.
Former Councilman Trevor O’Neil, who was also present at those meetings, said Nocella and others planned to keep the money out of the general fund so they could keep a hold on it.
“Our position and my position is you don’t want to just flood the general fund with tens of millions of dollars in new money, because you’re going to have every interest group going after it,” O’Neill said to investigators.
Annie Mezzacappa, Sidhu’s former chief of staff, noted that Nocella also weighed in on the former mayor’s speeches before he gave them.
“To my recollection, general suggestions/input may have occasionally been provided by Carrie Nocella for the former mayor’s deliberative thought process,” she said to investigators. “However, I do not recall to what extent, if any, that may have been incorporated.”
While Nocella is not a registered lobbyist under the city’s rules, she regularly meets with city leaders to discuss city policy according to the report and works with other registered lobbyists.
She currently teaches a class at Chapman University titled “Legislative Advocacy & Lobbying,” according to her LinkedIn page.
City council members just voted to explore requiring employees like Nocella to register as lobbyists.
The Results Today
Four of the seven current Anaheim City Council members were elected with Disney’s support, with the Support Our Anaheim Resort group spending more on their campaigns than the candidates themselves did.
Disney’s seeing a return on that investment now as those same council members are fighting against Measure A, a ballot initiative put forward by hotel workers’ unions that would require hotels to increase their minimum wage to $25 an hour.
Ultimately, Councilmembers Natalie Rubalcava, Stephen Faessel, Jose Diaz, Natalie Meeks and Norma Campos-Kurtz voted against adopting the initiative, instead sending it to the ballot in a special election scheduled for Oct. 3.
Those five council members also voted to adopt a city ordinance that would require workplace protections for hotel workers, such as panic buttons, but took away any mention of a raise.
Rubalcava, Faessel, Diaz and Meeks all received the majority of their campaign spending from SOAR, and while Campos-Kurtz was appointed to her seat on the council earlier this year, she’s already started receiving donations from SOAR for her 2024 campaign.
She also used to sit on SOAR’s advisory board.
While council members were publicly pushing back against the proposal and forcing it to the ballot, Disney invested $500,000 in a political action committee aimed at killing the initiative, becoming the single biggest donor to the effort against raising the minimum wage.
Tait, the former mayor who opposed resort subsidies, said political spending by Disney and other resort interests created a stranglehold on the council.
“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.”
Clarification: An earlier verison of this story stated Kris Murray served on SOAR’s board. Officials with SOAR clarified she only serves on the advisory board, not the organization’s board of directors.
Noah Biesiada 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 X @NBiesiada.
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