A long-awaited outside investigation into political corruption in Anaheim made public Monday found a “potential criminal conspiracy” regarding $1.5 million in COVID-19 relief funds and alleged the city’s former mayor and the ex-head of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce participated in “influence peddling.”
The 353-page report by the Laguna Niguel investigative firm JL Group detailed numerous lobbyist meetings that weren’t reported as required by the city, raised concerns about the close relationship between the city and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, and characterized former Mayor Harry Sidhu’s signature Anaheim First initiative as “nothing more than a fig leaf for potential future public corruption and the wrongful diversion of public funds.”
The Anaheim City Council retained the JL Group last summer after a sprawling political corruption investigation by the FBI became public. Affidavits by one of the special agents involved accused Sidhu of a slew of misdeeds in connection with the city’s since-aborted sale of Angel Stadium to a company controlled by the team’s owner, and detailed a secretive, self-described “cabal” pulling the strings in Orange County’s most populous city that’s home to Disneyland and Major League Baseball’s Angels. Sidhu, who resigned but has not been criminally charged, has denied wrongdoing.
“We must ensure that this scandal and the contents of the report lead to meaningful reforms so that corruption never again takes root at City Hall,” Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken said in a statement. “I am in the process of creating a Mayor’s Advisory Committee — made up of government, community, business and legal leaders — to thoroughly review the report and bring concrete reforms forward for discussion with the City Council.”
The JL Group investigation — the initial price tag was $750,000, but that doubled this year to a maximum of $1.5 million — does not contain any blockbuster revelations but depicts a city dogged by troubling conduct from politicians, lobbyists and other power brokers that extended far beyond what the FBI has laid out.
Perhaps the most serious allegation revolves around COVID-19 recovery funds. After the City Council approved Sidhu’s plan in March 2020 to direct $6.5 million to Visit Anaheim, a nonprofit organization that markets the city, the JL Group found that $1.5 million was diverted to another nonprofit controlled by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, headed at the time by Todd Ament.
“We determined that there was a conspiracy between then Mayor Sidhu, Ament, and the CEO and president of Visit Anaheim, Jay Burress,” the report said. “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 from Visit Anaheim.
“The chamber nonprofit entity that received this $1.5 million in 2020 did not list those funds in their tax returns that were filed in December 2022. … This activity demonstrates the nature and style of Ament and Mayor Sidhu’s intentions on inappropriately and potentially unlawfully diverting public funds in inappropriate ways.”
Ament, Burress and Sidhu didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
According to the report, JL Group representatives met with Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer and several of his staffers in March to discuss “potential criminal conspiracy and a theft/wrongful diversion” of the $1.5 million.
In a statement about the report, Spitzer said, “I am reviewing with my team to evaluate it for potential criminal conduct and I have no time frame at this time on any decisions.”
Last month, the Anaheim City Council voted to release copies of the unredacted report to the state attorney general’s office and the FBI.
Ament, who pleaded guilty to four federal felonies last year as part of a deal to fully cooperate with the government, is a central figure in the JL Group report.
“Overall, we observed that Sidhu had a close connection to Ament and the Anaheim Chamber and engaged in what could only be described as influence-peddling through Ament,” the report said. “The evidence pointed to the fact that individuals who wanted to meet with the mayor had to first go through Ament and then pay some form of tribute in order to reach Mayor Sidhu. This could include donations to political organizations, joining the Anaheim Chamber, or participating in other pet projects favored by then Mayor Sidhu.”
The biggest effort among Sidhu’s “pet projects” was Anaheim First, a nonprofit with the stated goal of investing $250 million in the city’s neighborhoods over 10 years.
“We determined that Anaheim First’s initial creation was essentially a political data-mining operation wherein information from individuals attending and participating in local district meetings was captured and thereafter used improperly for political purposes,” the report said, crediting Ament and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce for coming up with the organization. “Additionally, there was evidence to show that Anaheim First was a mechanism used to freeze out the City Council’s political minority.”
The report was unsparing in its conclusions about Ament and Sidhu: “All these activities point to the fact that Mayor Sidhu and Ament were working in concert on a grander plan to peddle Mayor Sidhu’s influence and to unjustly enrich themselves in the process.”
Among a litany of other ethically or legally concerning situations set out in the report — including many unrelated to Ament and Sidhu — is allegedly rampant unreported lobbying. The report concluded that Jeff Flint, a prominent lobbyist whose clients have included Disney and the Angels, and former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle “likely falsely reported their lobbying activities by neglecting to register a number of clients and by failing to report numerous meetings that have been verified by calendar entries, emails and meeting attendees.”
The report found 38 suspected unreported lobbying meetings involving Flint and various city officials between 2019 and May 2022, when the FBI’s investigation became public.
Flint and Pringle didn’t respond to requests for comment.
All of it amounted to a city, the report found, that didn’t function as it should.
“In summary, the greater weight of the credible evidence demonstrates that there has seemingly existed a genuine contempt for government transparency and public participation relating to governmental projects and agreements concerning the actions of certain powerful actors in the city, including Ament, Flint and Sidhu,” the report said at the end of one section. “The rules and law seem to get in the way of certain elites’ desires and interests.”