Some current and former Anaheim City employees bravely gave residents this year a rare look behind the scenes of a city hall clouded by the shadow of the largest corruption scandal to rock Orange County in recent memory.
They did so in testimony to independent investigators tasked with uncovering corruption in Anaheim.
The Fall of Reform
Corruption probes in Anaheim are triggering tough ethics discussions across OC and Southern California. Will reform follow?
One current city hall department head Grace Stepter even called her boss, City Manager Jim Vanderpool a “political chameleon” in an interview with investigators.
Her testimony and others like it, along with the rest of the findings in a $1.5 million investigation shed light on what federal agents alleged in sworn affidavits last year – lobbyists and Disneyland resort interests heavily influence policy making at city hall.
Now, at the request of Mayor Ashleigh Aitken and Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava, a series of reform proposals are coming before elected officials this fall including a debate this Tuesday on how to best protect city hall whistleblowers:
People who want to ring the alarm bells if they see anything askew inside the walls of local government and try to stop corruption in its tracks.
But some critics question if such a policy will actually make a difference in OC’s biggest city.
Or if it is just performative.
Former Republican Mayor Tom Tait said in a Thursday phone interview that the reform proposals so far don’t address the underlying problem in Anaheim – the imbalance of campaign contributions from Disney during local elections
“As long as that’s the case, I believe it’s going to be very difficult to stem corruption,” Tait said.
Mayor Ashleigh Aitken and the rest of the city council did not return requests for comment Thursday.
Aitken’s father, Wylie, chairs the Voice of OC’s board of directors.
The city council is expected to discuss campaign finance reform at their Nov. 7 meeting.
Still, the cities of Oakland, Sacramento, Rocklin, San Francisco as well as the county of San Francisco have their own whistleblower protections laws or policies in addition to the state.
Officials in Anaheim aren’t the only city in Southern California looking to make changes in the fallout of the corruption scandal.
Elected San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott is calling for her city to implement whistleblower protections as well.
“The FBI probe found that city workers did not report the undue influence exerted by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and the Disneyland resort district on City Hall because of possible retaliation,” Elliott wrote in a Sept. 20 memo citing several Voice of OC articles.
“City staff must feel safe, or they will not report suspected misconduct or corruption.”
Elliott is calling for a whistleblower hotline “overseen by an entity that is not directly or indirectly controlled by the council or the mayor.”
That means that tipline would not go to their city manager.
In a previous discussion on the matter in Anaheim, Councilwoman Natalie Meeks suggested publicly that the best option might be to rebrand City Hall’s fraud hotline – which goes to the City Manager Jim Vanderpool.
Vanderpool’s name pops up about 100 times in the independent investigation report and he was described as someone who would adapt to the prevailing political environment and go to bat for interests favored by former Mayor Harry Sidhu, who has pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.
Former Councilman Jose Moreno said in a Thursday phone interview that if the council’s goal with the whistleblower protection policy is about creating trust the city has to take action against Vanderpool and other executive staff members called out by employees in the investigation report.
“What is the purpose of the whistleblower policy if at the end of the day, you just paid $1.5 million and you have several instances of behavior and actions that are borderline – if not illegal – unethical and violate the public trust and there’s no consequence?” he said.
“Why would an employee or resident call in or report or blow the whistle if this council has already shown it’s not going to do much of anything?”
Tait said during his tenure the city officials approved the current city fraud hotline intended to give residents and city staff an easy pathway to report if they saw something wrong in the city.
“My thinking was that this would help out a lot and apparently, it didn’t,” he said. “That was in place when all this was happening in the last few years. It still happened.”
Independent investigators in Anaheim said it wasn’t easy to get staff to talk about what was happening at city hall.
“Many city employees who were interviewed in this matter voiced their concerns over possible retaliation in response to their participation in this investigation and were advised to report any such behavior to the City’s Human Resources Department, or any other official state and/or Federal reporting agency,” reads the 353-page corruption report.
Moreno said testimony from current and former city staff members was critical to their investigation.
“Their insights and the examples that they gave clearly show this is bigger than Harry Sidhu,” he said. “It hands down is about a culture that they did not feel comfortable with and they felt so compelled to provide their perspective.”
“I know that there are other staff members in the city who had a lot that they could have said and shared with the investigators that they’ve shared with me but they just did not feel safe to do so.”
Hosam Elattar 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 Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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