Jay Burress, CEO and President of Visit Anaheim, has resigned amid allegations he helped divert $1.5 million in tax dollars to an Anaheim Chamber of Commerce-controlled nonprofit in the midst of one of the biggest corruption scandals to hit Orange County.
Christina Dawson, senior vice president of operations for Visit Anaheim – the local tourism bureau – confirmed Thursday that Burress resigned last week and a search to replace him as president and CEO is ongoing.
She declined to comment further.
Mike Lyster, a city spokesperson, said in a Wednesday email the city has not been updated about Visit Anaheim when asked about Burress’ resignation.
“We have not received any notification or update regarding Visit Anaheim,” he wrote.
After publication Thursday, Mayor Ashleigh Aitken said in a text message she couldn’t comment on the resignation since she hadn’t been contacted by Visit Anaheim about the issue.
Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
The rest of the city council did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Alleged Criminal Conspiracy
In a 353-page corruption report released at the end of July, independent investigators – with decades of law enforcement experience – alleged Visit Anaheim took $1.5 million of the $6.5 million COVID bailout they were given by the city council and sent the money to a Chamber of Commerce controlled nonprofit.
The money Anaheim gave the tourism bureau in March 2020 was from the city’s general fund and was later backfilled by federal COVID bailout money.
Investigators say Burress was part of a conspiracy to divert the money allegedly concocted by former Mayor Harry Sidhu and former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament, both of whom have pleaded guilty to multiple federal crimes.
“The facts showed that then-Mayor Sidhu directed Burress to divert $1.5 million to the Anaheim Chamber’s controlled nonprofit and that Ament instructed Burress to report, if asked about the $1.5 million, that it came from other reserve funds,” investigators wrote.
“This cover story was created in order to provide some sort of plausible deniability for the unlawful diversion of this $1.5 million,” reads their report.
In September, Sidhu pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about attempting to ram the Angel Stadium sale through for $1 million in campaign support from the team.
In July 2022, Ament pleaded guilty to a series of federal fraud charges.
Burress’ name is mentioned nearly 120 times in the corruption report, and investigators say he admitted he completely fabricated the $6.5 million figure the organization said it needed to survive the pandemic.
Sidhu spearheaded the bailout in March 2020 so Visit Anaheim could book conventions and advertise the Disneyland resort area at a time when the local tourism industry was shut down indefinitely.
Disneyland would be closed for more than a year.
At the time, former City Manager Chris Zapata objected to Sidhu’s plan saying they should loan them the money instead.
Zapata was fired by Sidhu’s council majority shortly afterwards.
State Auditor Eyes Visit Anaheim
Weeks after the corruption report was released on July 31, State Auditor Grant Parks launched an investigation into Visit Anaheim’s finances at the request of Assemblyman Avelino Valencia, a former city councilman.
That audit is expected to be released this winter, according to the auditor’s website.
Anaheim City Council members refused to launch their own investigation into Visit Anaheim in August despite a request by Mayor Ashleigh Aitken to do so.
Meanwhile, City Attorney Rob Fabela said he sent a letter demanding the return of the $1.5 million.
Burress started working as Visit Anaheim’s President and CEO in February 2013, according to his LinkedIn page.
As of 11:51 a.m. Thursday, Burress was still listed as secretary of Visit Anaheim’s Board of Directors.
Hosam Elattar 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 @ElattarHosam.
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