A year and a half ago, two powerful men in Anaheim discussed a critical question over the phone: Who should they invite to a secret meeting of Anaheim business leaders, consultants and politicians?
It was to be a “retreat” at a local hotel, with one of them describing their small group as a “cabbalah.” Assistance would be limited to people they could trust or, as they say, “family members only.”
What the men didn’t know was that the FBI was listening.
As Todd Ament, then president of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, and an anonymous political consultant discussed which City Council members to include in the group, the consultant boasted about the influence they had over Orange County’s most populous city: “ We tell [Elected Official 4]we re-elected you, we hope you will be a loyal member of the team.”
At one point in the call, Ament weighed in on the wisdom of inviting an unnamed member of the Anaheim City Council: “For me,” he said, “we know [him] so right. So if we take him to the cabal and he’s playing double agent, then we’re all screwed.”
Recorded conversations presented in court this week have thrust the city, best known for home to the Disneyland Resort, Major League Baseball’s Angels and the National Hockey League’s Ducks, into the center of a growing public corruption scandal.
The allegations have jeopardized the city’s planned $320 million sale of Angel Stadium to the team, shocked Anaheim’s political establishment and provided a rare, unvarnished look at how business is done behind closed doors in the city. of 350,000 inhabitants.
In an affidavit filed last week in support of a federal search warrant against Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu, FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins wrote that Anaheim “was tightly controlled by a small group of people,” including Siddhu. In a criminal complaint filed this week against Ament, accused of lying to a mortgage lender, Adkins alleged that Ament and the political consultant “had defined a specific and covert group of individuals who wielded significant influence over the inner workings of the Anaheim government.” .
The self-styled cabal organized retreats for power brokers and was so influential that the political consultant scripted a bond measure, with input from Ament and a person identified as an employee of Company A, for a City Council member wear it at a March 2021 meeting, then mocked your delivery.
“[Elected Official 1] he reads your script so badly,” the Company A employee wrote in a text message to the political consultant intercepted by the FBI.
“Hahaha,” replied the consultant. “He doesn’t practice.”
Adkins, the FBI agent, described the political consultant as a “senior partner” in a public affairs firm that used the same office building as the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. Those details match Jeff Flint, executive director and senior partner at FSB Public Affairs, which has an office in the same building as the chamber. Flint has represented Angels owner Arte Moreno and the Disneyland Resort.
In a statement Wednesday, Flint said, “I have no hesitation in saying that I firmly believe I did nothing wrong or illegal,” but he will take a leave of absence as chief executive.
Company A is referred to in the complaint as “an influential company located in Anaheim,” but no other details are provided. Sidhu has not been charged. Ament has not yet pleaded guilty.
Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College, said court documents showed the mayor behaving like “Boss Tweed, this smoky backroom negotiator.” She said anyone watching Anaheim politics wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a “cabbalah” controlled the city.
Anaheim has long been known in Orange County political circles as a business city. Disneyland Resort loomed over the city’s power structure, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars campaigning to elect council members who would support favorable policies.
But Anaheim is also a city of sharp divisions between business elites who are supported by city politicians, wealthy residents who live in an affluent, largely white neighborhood known as the Anaheim Hills, and the city plains, where the most working population of the city. the Latino class population resides.
Many in the city, particularly the workers who clean hotel rooms, mop floors and work booths at the Disneyland Resort, have long felt politically marginalized.
Much of the recent turmoil revolves around Angel Stadium. In the search warrant affidavit, Adkins alleged that Sidhu provided confidential information to the Angels on at least two occasions during the city’s negotiations with the team over ownership of the 150-acre stadium and obstructed a Grand Jury investigation by the Angels. Orange County about the deal. The mayor, Adkins wrote, hoped to request $1 million in campaign contributions from the Angels in return for his help. The affidavit, which shows that the FBI suspects the mayor of bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering, does not charge the Angels with any wrongdoing or indicate that the team knew of his plan.
When Sidhu joined the city’s bargaining team in July 2019, Adkins argued, cabal members’ influence “could have been used to sway the City Council’s vote in favor of his appointment, and only his appointment, to the negotiating team.
The state Department of Housing and Community Development issued a notice to the city in December that the stadium deal violated the Excess Land Act, which requires public agencies to prioritize affordable housing, parks and open space when selling properties. The city denied any wrongdoing. As part of a deal struck last month, the city agreed to pay $96 million to create a fund to build affordable housing.
An Orange County Superior Court judge halted the sale for 60 days Tuesday in response to a request from the state attorney general who released the search warrant against Sidhu. The state attorney general’s filing suggested that the disclosures in the order could lead to the settlement being voided and that “new and developing information about potential violations of state and federal law is likely to be presented.”
The city described the federal investigation as a “review related to the proposed sale of Angel Stadium” in a news release Monday, and followed up two days later with an unusual release announcing that three City Council members had sent a letter to the Sidhu’s attorney requesting the mayor’s approval. resigns due to investigation “arising from independent actions he may have taken” in connection with the stadium deal.
“The deeply troubling issues that have come to our attention related to Mayor Sidhu…raise serious concerns and questions about his ability to continue as Mayor of Anaheim,” the letter to Sidhu’s attorney said.
Sidhu, a Republican elected mayor in 2018, uses the slogan that Anaheim is the “City that Empowers the American Dream.” He is running for re-election in November.
The mayor learned of the federal investigation in February as part of a ruse in which a cooperating witness, Ament, served him a bogus federal grand jury subpoena seeking communications related to the stadium deal. The affidavit showed the mayor’s growing suspicion: “On several occasions, Sidhu questioned whether the federal government was monitoring phones and/or emails, and even asked if the government would need to get court approval to do so.”
The control of Anaheim by this small group of infiltrators was not always so complete.
In 2012, city leaders considered giving a $158 million per bed tax subsidy to the developer of two four-star hotels near the resort. The deal sparked outrage among critics who argued it was an unjustifiable giveaway of taxpayer funds. Then-Mayor Tom Tait opposed the deal. At the time, political observers saw it as a notable break from the usual group of insiders who banded together to award favorable deals to the city’s business leaders. For a brief time between 2016 and 2018, Tait led the majority of the council.
But the complaint and affidavit paint a picture of a city, known around the world for attracting more than 25 million tourists each year, where the levers of power are still wielded by a handful of insiders.
“I was surprised when I read the affidavit and how it described such a structured system,” said Councilman Avelino Valencia, who believes he is the elected official characterized in the intercepted call as a possible double agent. “I knew there were regular meetings where general Anaheim politics were discussed, but I never expected it to be this sophisticated.”
In an intercepted call, Ament and the political consultant discussed whether a council member identified in the affidavit as “Elected Official 7” could bear to join the cabal. Ament mentioned a group called Support Our Anaheim Resort that is made up of business owners, community leaders and residents that was founded with financial backing from Disney.
“I think this would be a lot for him to absorb in his first week. [as an elected member of the Anaheim City Council]Ament said. “It’s like when SOAR brought how the sausage was made to the SOAR Board to show them how the poll works and how we manipulate it. That’s when half of SOAR went haywire.”
The political consultant laughed.
“We are part of the manipulation,” Ament continued. “I think it’s too early to [Elected Official 7] to go into this level of detail.”
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.