Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., on Aug. 14, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Former Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu agreed to plead guilty to federal charges linked to the now-defunct Angel Stadium sale on Aug. 16, a day after the Southern California city council decided to move ahead with and study several ideas to change the way the city does business in response to a recent corruption investigation.
The charges include obstruction of justice, wire fraud, and lying to federal investigators stemming in part from his actions during an effort to sell the city-owned stadium in 2020, according to court documents filed Aug. 16.
“While serving as Anaheim’s mayor, Mr. Sidhu took a series of actions that compromised the city’s negotiating position by providing confidential information and secretly working to influence the city’s decision-making process—all of which had a detrimental effect on the city and its residents,” First Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph T. McNally said in a statement.
Prosecutors allege in the court documents that during the city’s 2020 negotiations to sell the stadium to the Angels, Mr. Sidhu provided “confidential inside information belonging to the city” to an Angels consultant and then-Anaheim Chamber of Commerce Co-President Todd Ament. According to prosecutors, Mr. Sidhu was later caught on tape saying he expected a $1 million campaign contribution from the baseball team in exchange for the information he provided.
Mr. Sidhu resigned last year after the Federal Bureau of Investigations released an affidavit alleging he was involved in corruption.
Mayor of Anaheim Harry Sidhu spoke at a broadcasted event in Anaheim, Calif., on Sept. 16, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
At its regular meeting Tuesday, Anaheim city councilors discussed findings of a city-commissioned report
published by the Laguna Niguel-based JL Group July 31 that detailed possible criminal conspiracy and alleged theft of COVID-19 relief funds, as well as questionable activities during the stadium deal negotiation.
Mayor Ashleigh Aitken proposed a variety of actions to respond to allegations in the 353-page report, but city councilors took a more conservative approach with many of the ideas.
One of the proposals called for the city to stop funding Visit Anaheim, a nonprofit tourism agency named in the report. Investigators claim the agency was given $6.5 million in Anaheim COVID-19 relief funds on the advice of Mr. Sidhu.
In the JL Group’s probe, investigators said they found evidence that Mr. Sidhu directed the relief funds to Visit Anaheim, which the former city council members voted to approve. When former City Manager Chris Zapata spoke out against it, the former mayor orchestrated his firing in April 2020, according to the investigation.
The report claims Mr. Sidhu then directed Visit Anaheim’s director Jay Burress to divert $1.5 million of the COVID funds to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and “cover his story” if he was questioned about it.
During Tuesday’s city council meeting, city councilors agreed on a vote of 6–1 to ask city staff to study whether the city can withhold future funds from Visit Anaheim.
Anaheim City Hall in Anaheim, Calif., on Aug. 26, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
The city’s hotels collect a 2 percent fee from guests, which is sent to the city to disperse to Visit Anaheim for tourism-related marketing programs. The agency also manages reservations for the city’s convention center.
City Councilman Jose Diaz voted against the idea, saying he was concerned the action could harm the city’s tourism.
“It’s not that I support what these people have done,” Mr. Diaz said when explaining his vote. “It might hurt the people that we tried to protect. I believe it is going to hurt the people of Anaheim.”
Ms. Aitken agreed.
“It’s put us in a tough situation because we need a functioning tourism bureau. It’s a very important part of our economy,” she said. “So, we want to make sure that any partnership that we have with them going forward is on the up and up.”
Ms. Aitken said she also wanted to explore asking Visit Anaheim to return the $1.5 million in COVID funds.
In another action, city councilors voted unanimously to write a letter to the state auditor on behalf of the city council, expressing the council’s and staff’s willingness to fully cooperate with any state investigations related to the JL Group’s report.
Assemblyman Avelino Valencia (D-Anaheim), a former Anaheim city councilman, asked the California State Legislature Aug. 3 to perform an urgent state audit
of the city following the release of the report.
The assemblyman’s request asks a joint legislative audit committee to review public funds dispersed to the chamber and the tourism agency.
The city council also voted to direct staff to explore whether the city’s contract with Visit Anaheim prohibited the tourism agency from working with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and directed city staff to explore requiring more detailed financial information from the tourism organization.
Other action to be taken by staff includes exploring options to strengthen the city’s lobbying ordinance and reporting requirements, and to look at making city manager, assistant city manager, and councilmember calendars public.
City News Service contributed to this report.