Anaheim Investigation Finds Possible Criminal Conspiracy, Theft of Public Funds

Anaheim Investigation Finds Possible Criminal Conspiracy, Theft of Public Funds

Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., on Sept. 16, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

8/2/2023

Updated: 12/30/2023

Local and state officials are calling for change in Anaheim after an independent investigation into the city’s former mayor and campaign donors found evidence of “potential criminal conspiracy” and theft of $1.5 million in COVID-19 relief funds, according to the JL Group’s report made public July 31.
The 353-page report was ordered by the former City Council in October 2022. The probe’s cost quickly grew to $1.5 million to pay for extensive research into alleged corruption by former Mayor Harry Sidhu and other officials involved in city contracts and the now-aborted sale of city-owned Anaheim Stadium.
The report, ordered after explosive corruption allegations were disclosed in a Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) affidavit in May 2022, claims Mr. Sidhu, former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament, and others engaged in “influence peddling.”
“After reviewing all the evidence made available to us, we concluded that several individuals related to this matter engaged in improper and at times unlawful conduct,” the JL Group wrote in the report. “It appeared clear, based on the greater weight of the credible evidence, that Mayor Sidhu engaged in an operation of influence peddling.”
Such were demonstrated by comments attributed to him in the FBI affidavit, saying he planned to request about $1 million to pay off campaign debt from the Angels baseball team in exchange for facilitating the sale of Angels Stadium to the team’s owner, according to the report.
Mr. Sidhu has not been charged or indicted for any crimes related to the FBI investigation or the report released Monday.
His attorney did not return requests for comment.
Mayor of Anaheim Harry Sidhu at a coronavirus vaccination center set up in a parking area of Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, Calif., on Jan, 13, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Mayor of Anaheim Harry Sidhu at a coronavirus vaccination center set up in a parking area of Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, Calif., on Jan, 13, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Evidence provided to the JL Group allegedly shows Mr. Sidhu leaked confidential negotiation materials through Mr. Ament to the Angels negotiating team, the report said.
Mr. Ament pleaded guilty in June 2022 to wire fraud in connection to allegations by the FBI of money laundering.
The Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, headed previously by Mr. Ament was allegedly involved in suspicious activities, the JL Group reported.
Investigators found no evidence of a “pay-for-play” agreement between the city and the chamber, but said the city was subsidizing the chamber with infusions of money on a near-yearly basis.
In the report, investigators said they determined Mr. Ament and the chamber created an Anaheim First initiative as a political data-mining operation that collected names and information of people attending local district meetings and was used to “freeze out the City Council’s political minority,” which at the time were Democratic Party members.
Investigators also revealed information concerning what it “believed was a potential criminal conspiracy and a theft/wrongful diversion” of COVID relief funds by the city to the nonprofit marketing organization Visit Anaheim in 2020.
In the probe, investigators said they found evidence that Mr. Sidhu directed $6.5 million in COVID funds to be given to the tourism group. When former City Manager Chris Zapata spoke out against it, Mr. Sidhu orchestrated his firing in April 2020. Mr. Zapata is now the city manager of Sausalito, California.
Angel Stadium of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team in Anaheim, Calif., on May 24, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Angel Stadium of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team in Anaheim, Calif., on May 24, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The report additionally claims Mr. Sidhu then directed Visit Anaheim’s Jay Burress to divert $1.5 million of the COVID funds to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and directed Mr. Burress to cover his story, if questioned about it.
Although a redacted version of the report was released to the public Monday, the city gave an unredacted version to the FBI and the California Attorney General’s Office.
Anaheim’s city council is expected to publicly review the report, possibly at its next meeting on Aug. 15, but the agenda has not yet been determined, according to a city spokesman.
“We continue to review the report and welcome any [constructive] insights and future direction from the City Council,” spokesman Mike Lyster told The Epoch Times.

Reaction to Report

Former and current city officials called for the city to adopt recommendations made by the investigative group to avoid similar corruption schemes in the future outlined in the report.
Current Mayor Ashleigh Aitken said she is creating a Mayor’s Advisory Committee to review the report and bring about reforms.
“The report released today is further confirmation that the actions of former Mayor Harry Sidhu and those who enabled him were not reflective of incompetence, but instead conscious acts of fraud, greed, and deception,” Ms. Aitken said in a statement provided to The Epoch Times.
Ms. Aitken’s advisory committee will be made up of government, community, business, and legal leaders, she said in the statement.
Former Mayor Pro Tem Trevor O’Neil, who was interviewed by investigators but not implicated in any alleged corruption, said the report’s findings indicate misuse of public funds.
“While the report does contain a certain amount of conjecture, highlights cursory politicking and lobbying that is commonplace, and rehashes long-standing political grudges, there are key findings that indicate the misuse of public funds through acts of collusion between former Mayor Sidhu and Todd Ament,” Mr. O’Neil told The Epoch Times. “I thank the JL Group for their work on behalf of the people of Anaheim and urge the Council to carefully consider the recommendations made.”
Former recent City Councilman Avelino Valencia, who was elected to the State Assembly in November, said he hoped the city would use the report, along with feedback from residents, to make needed ethics reforms.
“The findings of this report expand on the lack of transparency and abuse of public resources by corrupt individuals in Anaheim,” Mr. Valencia said in a statement Aug. 1. “Former Mayor Harry Sidhu, and some of his closest allies, acted for personal and political gain at the expense of what was best for our city. Their behavior was disgraceful and inexcusable.”
Anaheim City Councilman Avelino Valencia addresses a member of the public during the first Anaheim City Council meeting since the resignation of former mayor Harry Sidhu in Anaheim, Calif., on May 24, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Anaheim City Councilman Avelino Valencia addresses a member of the public during the first Anaheim City Council meeting since the resignation of former mayor Harry Sidhu in Anaheim, Calif., on May 24, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Mr. Valencia also said he would request an inspection by the state auditor of public funds received by Visit Anaheim and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
State Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, received the report Monday and said he was grateful for the investigation.
“Already as a quick scan, it reads like a soap opera: fraud, helicopters, cannabis, cabals,” Mr. Umberg said in a statement. “It’s going to take some time to digest the implications, findings, and recommendations and even still, I know another investigation is occurring by the FBI. Going back to the original lease extension for the Anaheim Stadium, there have been missteps and deliberately illegal actions alike taken at every turn.”
Mr. Umberg noted that his legislative measures addressing the issue are awaiting a hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Former Orange County Supervisor and former state Sen. John Moorlach, who was interviewed in the JL Group’s probe, said it was interesting to read the list of people and organizations that refused to talk with investigators.
“I thought that was rather telling,” Mr. Moorlach said. “I guess if I were to make a broad observation, it would be that you almost have to wait for the other foot to drop and wait for whatever investigations will be pursued by the district attorney. We’ll have to wait to see what happens with the FBI.”
Other state agencies might also want to weigh in after reading the report, he said.
The report noted that the Walt Disney Company and Angels Baseball declined repeated requests for interviews and refused to cooperate.

Corruption Investigation

The JL Group, a workplace consulting firm of former law enforcement officials based in Laguna Niguel, was tasked with determining whether there were any “pay-to-play” schemes—contributions that led to contract awards, for instance—involved in the city’s decision-making.
The group also investigated possible corruption and inappropriate conduct in the proposed sale of Angel Stadium under Mr. Sidhu’s leadership.
They also looked into any suspicious or questionable campaign donations to elected city officials or any violations of the state’s Brown Act, including any communications outside of noticed public meetings.
Investigators conducted interviews and audited computers, emails, and some mobile phones. Some of the items had been “wiped” or sanitized to erase information, according to the report.

Conflicts of Interest Continue

In other conclusions, the JL Group suggested the city return to operating under the form of government in its original city charter, which would require the mayor and city council members to share equally in shaping policy with the city manager overseeing operations.
As mayor, Mr. Sidhu would contact city staff and give direction or strong suggestions, the report stated.
At one point, according to the report, Mr. Sidhu insisted on being appointed to the negotiating team for the Angel Stadium and land sale. This could have led to Brown Act violations, the report stated.
The $320 million stadium sale fell apart after the FBI publicly released its affidavits and city officials voided the agreement.

The FBI Factor

The FBI released an affidavit months before the 2022 elections in May that alleged some city officials were involved in a “cabal” or “shadow government” that included the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and others, to promote private, political, and financial interests.
The bureau has not filed any charges against Anaheim’s elected officials in their probe.
However, the allegations appeared to have an effect on the November 2022 election, flipping the Republican-majority body to a council ruled by a supermajority of Democrats.
A man attends an Anaheim City Council meeting while holding a sign criticizing Anaheim's Angels Stadium deal in Anaheim, Calif., on May 24, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

A man attends an Anaheim City Council meeting while holding a sign criticizing Anaheim's Angels Stadium deal in Anaheim, Calif., on May 24, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

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Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

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Jill McLaughlin is an award-winning journalist covering politics, environment, and statewide issues. She has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico. Jill was born in Yosemite National Park and enjoys the majestic outdoors, traveling, golfing, and hiking.

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