For example, we discovered the mayor had some sort of link to Anaheim Beautiful, a non-profit organization that Faessel and his wife have championed. Multiple photographs The Investigator reviewed show Aitken attended a couple of events this group held at various venues, sometimes while the councilman’s wife was present.
In one photo of a September 2018 luncheon, Aitken can be seen seated at a table directly across from Campos-Kurtz, a who not only joined the Board of Directors of Anaheim Beautiful the previous year, but also maintained a tight relationship with Faessel through her job as district director for state Assemblyman Tom Daly.
Campos-Kurtz (back to camera) with Aitken in 2018.
In an attempt to learn more, The Investigator sent an email to Faessel asking him about his interactions with Aitken, including what knowledge he had about her with respect to Anaheim Beautiful, especially since evidence in our possession suggested that she had been affiliated with this non-profit for at least six years.
In response, the councilman told us that though he doesn’t consider Ashleigh to be a close friend, he has known her for “some years” now. But he said that they became acquainted with each other through their involvement with the Muzeo Museum&Cultural Center and Community Services Board, not Anaheim Beautiful.
Below is Faessel‘s reply:
I served as a member of the original MUZEO board with Betty Aiken and got to know her husband Wylie through that connection, I recall that Ashleigh chaired a MUZEO Fundraiser years ago when her mom and dad were still active in the organization.
My wife Susan served on the Anaheim Community Services Board along with Mrs. Ashleigh Aitken for a couple years in the later 2000’s (I cannot recall exactly) so certainly I got to meet her from time to time there.
While you mentioned her being a member of Anaheim Beautiful, I do not have any personal knowledge of that. Susan and I are very supportive of Anaheim Beautiful however I don’t know every member. She may have been a member.
To go to your main question, we know of each other and have for some years. We do not, nor ever have met socially (unless we happened to have attended the same event coincidentally.)
Therefore I would not describe our relationship as ‘close friends.’
The Anaheim Investigator made at least three attempts to contact Aitken and Berenice Ballinas, her chief of staff, requesting comment for this article. However, for some strange reason, the mayor, who claims to be open and transparent with everybody, declined to answer any of the questions we sent her and ignored our emails.
Norma Campos-Kurtz (left) with Jordan Brandman (right) at an Anaheim Beautiful luncheon in December 2017.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
In the aftermath of the AnaheimCity Council vote to appointNorma Campos-Kurtz to the District 4 seat vacated by Avelino Valencia III last year, a number of partisan Democrats were struggling to figure out the reason why Councilman Stephen Faessel was seemingly “chosen” to nominate her during the final round of balloting.
One video that was circulated on various Facebook groups made an attempt to understand what transpired by carefully dissecting every single move the council made that night. But such superficial analysis always ends up becoming an exercise in futility especially if you don’t know anything about the context of the behavior which took place.
The Anaheim Investigator, however, knew there was a very simple explanation for all of this. And we really didn’t have to dig that deep to find it. Evidence shows that Campos-Kurtz and Faessel are friends. Regardless of what the councilman’s publicly-stated motives were for picking her, they’ve known each other at least since 2016.
The relationship between the two began in earnest shortly after Faessel was elected to his seat on the Anaheim City Council in 2016. At that time, Campos-Kurtz was district director for Tom Daly, a state Assemblyman whose area encompassed a large chunk of Anaheim. One of her tasks was to do outreach to the councilman.
Things began to blossom when Campos-Kurtz joined the Board of Directors of Anaheim Beautiful in 2017, a non-profit organization whose core membership appears to consist of upper-middle class homeowners, some of whom have had ties to other groups like Support our Anaheim Resort and the now-defunct Anaheim First.
Not only has Faessel been a strong supporter of Anaheim Beautiful, but his wife has been an active participant in their activities:”Susan supports … Anaheim Beautiful programs such as Green Ribbon Week, Neighborhood Clean Up, Memorial Tree and Holiday Lights Tour,” according to the Anaheim High School Alumni Association website.
There is no doubt Campos-Kurtz’s involvement with Anaheim Beautiful’s board has benefited them. For example, in two messages posted on Facebook and Twitter in 2019 and 2021, it appears she was instrumental in boosting political support for that non-profit’s activities, including a scholarship program and a holiday lights award ceremony.
In direct response to a question The Investigator emailed to Campos-Kurtz about her relationship with Faessel, she quite frankly admitted to us what we already suspected based on evidence gathered during our own probe: that she had been friends with the councilman for several years now, though mostly in an official capacity.
“I met the councilmember soon after he was first elected to council as a result of responsibilities while working for then Assemblymember Tom Daly,” she told us last Friday. “Over the years I’ve met up with the councilmember (and his wife) at several community events, organization luncheons/dinners, city meetings and events.”
For matter of record, The Investigator does not dispute that Campos-Kurtz is qualified to be a councilwoman. But decisions to appoint someone to a vacant seat aren’t made at a city council meeting alone. They are based on pre-existing relationships formed over years of interactions. Faessel may deny it, but that’s one reason why he nominated her.
Evidence reviewed by The Investigator–including campaign finance documents, numerous photographs, and archived websites–not only show that both women have contributed money to SOAR’s political action committee through various fundraisers, but that one of them was appointed to its separate advisory board in 2022.
Newby, a longtime resident of Anaheim, is the owner of Gallery Travel, a “full-service travel agency.” Between 2013 and 2014, she served on the board of directors of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and has been active in other groups formed by that body, such as Anaheim First, which was backed by former Mayor Harry Sidhu.
Multiple photographs in the possession of The Investigator show Newby has participated in SOAR fundraisers on and off since 2014. Form 460s filed by SOAR with the City Clerk’s office report she gave at least $100 to them on at least four different occasions (the last time being August 26, 2021), but did so under the name of her business.
That Campos-Kurtz has a close relationship with SOAR is of no surprise. Between 2014 and 2021, she worked for Democratic State Assemblyman Tom Daly, who was one of the earliest champions of this Disney-funded entity. Not only do Form 460s show that Daly got funds from them, but he bragged about their endorsement in 2012.
In 2020, SOARspent a whopping $405,710–the bulk of which came from The Walt Disney Company–to help Valencia get elected to his District 4 city council seat. It’s not a coincidence that at the time this was happening, he was working as a field representative for Daly and Campos-Kurtz just so happened to be his boss.
Screenshot from SOAR’s website.
Despite the fact eleven other people have filed applications seeking appointment to the District 4 city council seat, The Investigator believes that none of them ever stood a chance of being considered for this position. From our perspective, the decision as to who will replace Valencia had already been made weeks ago.
However, there appears to be no clear consensus on the Anaheim City Council right now as to whether they will pick Campos-Kurtz or Newby. There is a possibility the vote could end up deadlocked 3-3 for both. Regardless of what the case will be, the odds a candidate tied to SOAR will be chosen to fill this seat are quite high.
The job offer was set into motion shortly after Valencia sent out an email to James Vanderpool, the city manager, on Monday, July 26, 2021, expressing that he “would like to hire Dr. Tina Arias Miller as a Senior Policy Aide…. Dr. Miller will be working about 6-7 hours a week. Her hourly compensation will be $31.00 an hour.”
Valencia’s email to the city manager.
Documents The Investigator acquired from the City of Anaheim show that Miller worked for Valencia less than a year. A human resources action report notes she was hired on August 16, 2021. And her last day on the job was March 31, 2022, according to the final Form 700 Statement of Economic Interests that she filed.
However, it’s unclear what Miller did for the councilman that warranted her higher pay grade. For example, The Investigator carefully reviewed his calendar during the several months he employed her and though she was sent to a few city meetings, she appears to have spent most of her time doing tasks that lesser-paid council aides do.
But most importantly, Valencia took steps to ensure the public never knew he had hired her. At no time did he ever list Miller’s name on his homepage on the city website. And despite the fact she had an official email address, she was apparently told not to use it to send messages, enabling her to elude detection from public records act requests.
Hari S. Lal, a candidate running for Anaheim City Council in District 6, has alleged that a blogger threatened to kill him.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
In a statement sent last month to The Anaheim Investigator by Hari S. Lal, a candidate running for Anaheim City Council in District 6, he alleged that Matt Cunningham, a political consultant who runs the Anaheim Observer, a right-wing news blog, not only made a “direct threat to my life,” but took responsibility for “hundreds” of his campaign signs “being destroyed, stolen, or having swastikas painted on them,” even causing his mailbox to be vandalized. “It is now a matter for the Anaheim Police,” he told us.
However, The Investigator has subsequently learned Lal has never bothered to report any of these purported criminal acts–some of which can be prosecuted as felonies under state law–to the Anaheim Police Department for further investigation. Additionally, the candidate has repeatedly ignored every request we have made asking that he provide us with evidence that some of these crimes actually occurred, such as show us photographs taken of those campaign signs he claimed were defaced by swastikas.
The whole brouhaha between Lal and Cunningham erupted on September 13th when the latter published an article which accurately reported the Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector’s website showed the candidate then-owed $146,337.93 in delinquent property taxes on his Anaheim Hills mansion. In response, Lal threatened to sue the blogger demanding he “immediately withdraw your false and misleading articles regarding myself with respect to the property tax in the amount of $140,000.”
Lal’s mansion in Anaheim Hills.
So far, no lawsuit has been filed. And an updated version of the article is still online. But in the statement Lal sent, he claims Cunningham “doxxed” him in the first one that was posted, revealing “personal details” about his life which “went far beyond” what is considered public record. “This appeared to be a malicious attempt to threaten my family and incite vandalism towards my property,” he told us. “It succeeded: my mailbox was spray painted that night. I hold Mr. Cunningham directly accountable for this.”
Furthermore, Lal also alleged the blogger threatened to kill him, and took credit for trashing his signs: “I was called on my personal cell phone that evening by a blocked number; the caller identified himself as ‘Cunningham, of course!’ He mocked me and–in a reference to hundreds of my campaign signs in Anaheim Hills being destroyed, stolen, or having swastikas painted on them–shouted: ‘We have flattened your signs and we will flatten you!’ This was a direct threat to my life! It is now a matter for the Anaheim Police.”
However, Lal never bothered to report any of these purported criminal acts to the Anaheim Police for further investigation. Sergeant Shane Carringer, public information officer for the department, told The Investigator via email on October 17th they have “confirmed there are no records showing Lal contacted APD.” And the candidate has repeatedly ignored our requests to provide us with evidence some of these crimes actually occurred, such as show us photographs taken of campaign signs defaced by swastikas.
Reacting to Lal’s allegations, Cunningham had this to say: “It is true I unpublished the article as a courtesy to Mr. Lal while I further investigated his claims and explanations, which turned out to be false. I then re-published an expanded version with additional information. The rest of his allegations about me are false–especially his absurd claim that I made a threatening phone call to him. I have never spoken to Hari Lal–I do not even have his cell phone number. All my communication with him was via e-mail.”
There are no records Lal contacted Anaheim Police.
And these aren’t the only bizarre claims Lal has made. In his statement, the candidate says the reason why he didn’t pay $146,337.93 in delinquent property taxes was because he applied for a “reassessment” under Proposition 60–which would enable him to transfer value from a previous home he owned to his current one. “For reasons unknown to me, the application was not granted, and the case was set aside to be adjudicated,” he told us. “This adjudication never occurred, due in part to COVID-19.”
But The Investigator filed a public records act request with the Orange County Assessor Department–the only agency through which Lal could apply for a “reassessment”–asking they release all “emails, letters, faxes, correspondence, petitions, and other documents, legal or otherwise, which deal with, address, and/or pertain to any attempts by Hari S. Lal, through various provisions of Proposition 60 or Proposition 90, to transfer the base year value of his last primary residence to the residence he currently owns.”
In reply, the Orange County Assessor sent a letter back stating the “assessor had no responsive records.” Joanne Kim, a quality assurance manager for the department, told The Investigator via phone and email last month that Lal never applied for any “reassessments” of his Anaheim Hills mansion under provisions of Proposition 60, Proposition 90, or Proposition 19. In fact, Kim said that they have no records the candidate had ever contacted them. “We don’t have anything from him,” she reiterated.
In his statement, Lal also claims that his “case is now pending appeal for a declaratory relief regarding my eligibility for Prop 60/90,” suggesting this issue is perhaps being litigated in court. But for some reason, the candidate–who himself is a lawyer by trade–wouldn’t tell The Investigator what venue he was pursuing this matter in, who the presiding judicial officer is, and when the next hearing date will be. He repeatedly ignored all of our requests to provide us with any information about it.
There are no records Lal contacted the Assessor.
During our month-long inquiry intothis affair, The Investigator couldn’t find any proof that would support any of Lal’s claims. The fact the candidate himself was uncooperative and refused to provide us with evidence wasn’t especially helpful. Nevertheless, we did find one thing that he was being quite truthful about: somebody has been taking down his campaign signs in Anaheim Hills. And not only do we know the name of the “culprit,” but we also know the name of their employer.
In one of the public records act requests we filed with the City of Anaheim, a document was released to us by the Planning & Building Department which reported that a part-time clerk was dispatched to remove one of Lal’s campaign signs that had been illegally posted on city property near 8225E. Santa Ana Canyon Roadin Anaheim Hills. They apparently retrieved it sometime before noon on Tuesday, September 27th because by 11:50 a.m. the case file on this matter had been closed.
Below is the statement sent last month to The Anaheim Investigator by Hari S. Lal, a candidate running for Anaheim City Council in District 6.
Robert Fabela, City Attorney for the City of Anaheim, speaking at a meeting of the Anaheim City Council earlier this year.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
In a highly unusual chain of emails obtained from the City of Anaheim last year through the public records act, City Attorney Robert Fabela appears to have advised Councilman Avelino Valencia III to “lie” to The Anaheim Investigator about the underlying reasons why he handed out several thousand dollars worth of city-owned Angels baseball tickets to his campaign backers–something of which the city attorney has emphatically denied.
The emails in question, which were also shared with City Clerk Theresa Bass and Chief Communications OfficerMike Lyster, offers a rare glimpse into a system that holds nobody accountable for misusing any of the hundreds of tickets the city gets each year from Angel Stadium and Honda Center, allowing politicians like Valencia to give them away like candy to big donors, personal friends, and union leaders who helped get him elected.
In an attempt to learn more about the “good work” these people did, The Investigator sent Valencia an email on June 17th which listed the names of 22 individuals that public records showed were the recipients of his ticket largess between the months of April and May. “In the interest of full public disclosure, [we’re] requesting information as to the type of ‘volunteer public service’ each of the above persons are engaged in,” we wrote.
It wasn’t until in mid-July The Investigator learned Valencia was concerned about our inquiry into the reasons why he gave out tickets. A chain of emails obtained through the public records act showed that shortly after receiving our June 17th message, the councilman forwarded it to Fabela and Bass, asking them for help. “Please see the below email I received,” he said. “I would appreciate your advise [sic] and direction regarding the request.”
Within a half hour, Fabela issued a reply. The city attorney told Valencia he had “no obligation to respond” to The Investigator because it was “an ask for a verbal response.” Furthermore, he stated “policy” allows the councilman to “provide tickets not only for past service, but also to ‘attract’ service.” And finally, Fabela said if he does choose to respond, that this is “more of a public relations issue,” urging him to contact Lyster “to help him with … strategy.”
Forty minutes later, Bass followed up with an email backing one of Fabela’s points. “For reference, I am attaching a copy of our Ticket Policy — Section 5.0 states the conditions by which tickets may be distributed,” the city clerk told Valencia. “As noted by Rob, the policy allows for ‘attracting or rewarding volunteer public service’ which was noted on your Form 802, meeting the requirements of the policy and FPPC Form 802.”
Fabela’s email to Valencia.
The chain of emails The Investigator discovered–especially the one sent out by Fabela–offers us a behind-the-scenes look into why the ticket system has been constantly plagued with cronyism and corruption. Though part of problem lies with bad policies that have allowed council members to hijack it for political purposes, evidence we have unearthed seems to hint an overly compliant city bureaucracy might also be enabling this unethical behavior.
But it is what Fabela instructed him to do that is of great significance. Besides the fact he told Valencia that he could ignore The Investigator–and thus stonewall our inquiry–it appears he advised him to “lie” about the reason why he handed out those tickets, reminding the councilman that “policy” also allows him to “provide tickets … to ‘attract’ service”–a flimsy pretext which doesn’t require recipients to do any “volunteer public service.”
To better understand the context of Fabela’s advice, it was given after the councilmanhad already handed out tickets to 22 individuals–most of them campaign backers–between the months of April and May. And by reminding Valencia that “policy” also allows him to “provide tickets … to ‘attract’ service,” the city attorney hinted a different pretext could be used to justify what he did, thus “lie” about his reasons for distributing them.
What is most revealing about Fabela’s email is he never advised Valencia to truthfully answer The Investigator’s questions. Given that taxpayers own these tickets, one would think the city attorney would zealously guard their interests. Not so. Everything he wrote, whether intentional or not, encouraged the councilman to be deceptive. Even his suggestion Lyster be contacted to formulate a response hinted it be a spun narrative.
The emailthat Bass sent out, however, was more straightforward. The city clerk was correct when she told Valencia “policy allows for ‘attracting or rewarding volunteer public service’ which was noted on your Form 802, meeting the requirements of the policy and FPPC Form 802.” There is nothing on ticket disclosure forms which require council members to explain why they gave them away. But they do have to identify a “public purpose.”
A Form 802 that Valencia filed in April 2021.
It is not a strange coincidence that on every Form 802Valencia filed for each big donor, personal friend, and union leader that he gave city-owned Angels baseball tickets to, he listed “attracting or rewarding volunteer public service” as the “public purpose.” That’s because this “public purpose,” as it is currently written, contains a major loophole which enables council members to hand out tickets to anybody on a flimsy pretext.
This loophole was first noticed by Gabriel San Roman, a former investigative journalist for the defunct-OC Weekly. While reviewing more than 1,539 ticket disclosure forms in 2019, he discovered a common pattern among council members who were abusing the system for their own selfish motives: they noted on each Form 802 they filed that they gave away tickets for the “public purpose” of “attracting or rewarding volunteer public service.”
Upon further scrutiny, San Roman learned this “public purpose” allowed council members to disburse tickets for two entirely different reasons: they can give them to “reward” people for “volunteer public service” they have done; or give them to “attract” people to do “volunteer public service” in the future. Since council members aren’t obligated to explain why they gave them away, nobody ever knows which of these two they chose.
The ambiguous nature of this “public purpose” has created a loophole which council members have been all too eager to exploit: if tickets can be given away to “attract” people to do “volunteer public service” in the future, then the recipient doesn’t have to do anything to earn them. Over the years, this flimsy pretext has paved the way for doling them out to practically anybody–big donors, lobbyists, political operatives–you name it.
OC Weekly cover story on August 9, 2019.
For matter of record, The Investigator did reach out to Fabela seeking his comment for this article. We asked the city attorney point blank if in the advice he gave to Valencia that he was “encouraging him to be deceptive—if not ‘lie’ to us—should he have chosen to respond” to our inquiry requesting he provide “additional information about his reasons for handing out tickets to 22 people during the months of April and May 2021”
“The answer to your question is ‘no’ as your inquiry is based on a misreading of both the email and the City ticket policy,” said Fabela. “The question to the Council member incorrectly assumed that past public service is the only criteria allowed under the City’s ticket policy, and my email to the Council member corrects that and reflects what City policy actually states. I do not see how that could be interpreted as encouraging anyone to ‘lie.'”
Regardless of what the city attorney’s intent was, it’s quite evident that Valencia felt empowered by what he said to continue distributing tickets to campaign backers without fear of any repercussions. Though the councilman has been handing more of them out to local residents and non-profit groups, he still doles tickets to cronies who not only have helped get him elected to public office in the past, but will probably do so in the future.
Six state legislators signed letters supporting efforts by Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, to increase his pension.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
Two letters The Anaheim Investigator obtained from the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) through the public records act show that six members of the state legislature not only quietly lent their names in support of a bid by Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, to increase his future pension earnings, but circumstantial evidence suggests at least five of them received hefty campaign contributions in return for their efforts.
Though nothing in the letters specifically mentions Serrano by name, they do make reference to a set of facts that are only unique to his case. Furthermore, the police union president himself actually entered them into evidence during a video conference hearing about his pension that was held before Adam L. Berg, an administrative law judge, on November 21, 2021. The sole reason why The Investigator became aware of their existence is because Berg cited them in a ruling released earlier this year,
Both letters, which were typed on official state government stationery, are identically worded. The only exception is they have different letterheads and signatories. The first one, dated May 14, 2021, uses a generic letterhead and is signed by Senator Bob Archuleta, Senator Tom Umberg, Assemblyman Tom Daly, Assemblyman Freddie Rodriquez, and Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk–Silva. But the second one, dated June 3, 2021, is only signed by Senator Josh Newman and uses the letterhead of his office.
In the correspondence, all six state legislators expressed their deep and underlying concerns about a decision that CalPERS made to exclude “special compensation” earned by an “employee / union president” from being “used to determine the employee’s total monthly pension payments upon retirement.” It was their belief, they wrote, that “CalPERS has issued an interpretation of state law” that was “inconsistent with the clear language and legislative intent of the controlling statutes.”
The legislators argued that several government codes, including one passed by the state legislature in 2018, authorizes “public employers to grant a leave of absence and allow representatives of employee organizations to fulfill their union responsibilities without loss of compensation or other benefits.” For CalPERS to deny this “employee / union president” pension credit for the “special compensation” he earned while performing these duties was a direct violation of state law, they claimed.
But in the months that followed, their letters have so far had little, if any impact, on subsequent legal proceedings which dealt with Serrano’s pension. In Berg’s ruling, issued on February 15, 2022, he wrote that both letters “contain the authors’ opinion as to the meaning” of the government code “and what they believe the outcome of the case should be.” From the judge’s perspective, these were “inadmissible opinions as to the ultimate legal question in this case” and “were not considered.”
Excerpt from Berg’s ruling.
During a seven month period between June and December 2021, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association funneled a combined total of $24,100 into the campaign coffers of at least five of the six state legislators who signed the letters. And all of the contributions, interestingly enough, appear to have been curiously timed: they were either made roughly within 30 days of the date the letters had been written; or within 30 days of the hearing that Serrano submitted them as evidence.
Regardless, this latest inquiry by The Investigator not only reveals there are no lack of elected officials eager to do special favors for Serrano, but it hints the latter uses the funds of his police union like a personal piggy bank, dispensing them to any politician he thinks will help him with his goal of securing a larger pension. And as we see now,this latest paper trail we’ve been following shows that the state treasurer isn’t the only person in Sacramento who has been implicated in this affair.
Below are the two letters signed by six state legislators that Gerry Serrano entered into evidence at a hearing about his pension on November 21, 2021.
Mayor Harry Sidhu with his son tossing out Easter eggs from his helicopter at Ronald Reagan Park in Anaheim Hills in April 2022.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
Public records that The Anaheim Investigator has carefully reviewed–including a recent petition filed in federal bankruptcy court–show Mayor Harry Sidhu registered his helicopter at the Arizona home of Joseph Manzella, a prominent businessman who previously owned The Catch, a restaurant which at one time was a favorite watering hole and dining spot for members of Anaheim’s resort elite.
From the database of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Earlier this year, on March 26, 2022, Manzella filed a petition seeking relief under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code with the U.S. Bankruptcy CourtArizona District in Phoenix where he declared under penalty of perjury that his address was, once again, “8024 E. Lone Mountain Rd,” even checkmarking a box which stated: “Over the last 180 days before filing this petition, I lived in this district longer than any other district.”
There is no evidence that Manzella, his wife, nor any of his relatives are complicit in any wrongdoing with respect to this matter, both criminal or otherwise. If anything, this is a story about how relationships between politicians and their friends, which were once kept hidden from public view, have suddenly become laid bare for all to see by the corruption scandal that has engulfed Anaheim.
[UPDATE: Harry Sidhu has stepped down as Anaheim mayor. His resignation will be effective on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.]
The document in question, which was submitted to the City of Anaheim on January 31, 2022, lists on page 77 that Progressive Solutions Consulting received the cash sometime between July and December of last year. The code used to identify the purpose of the payment is “CNS,” meaning Rafiei was consulting Ashleigh Aitken on her bid to become Anaheim’s next mayor.
In response to several questions The Investigator posed to Aitken about her relationship with Rafiei, the mayoral candidate acknowledged her “campaign contracted with Progressive Solutions Consulting at the end of 2021,” but said “we terminated our relationship with the company in February when Melahat Rafiei informed us that she was the subject of an investigation.”
Besides being a political consultant, Rafiei also happens to be the co-founder of WeCann, a company based near downtown Santa Anathat boasts itself as a “one-stop shop for cannabis entrepreneurs,” helping them with a wide array of issues ranging from “real estate acquisition and disposition, licensing fulfillment, business and investment consulting, and public advocacy.”
Reliable sources have told The Investigator that Cunningham, along with several associates, attended the September board meeting and delivered a presentation about his new blog, OC Independent, to members of that body. In addition, they claim shortly after he finished speaking, Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, actively lobbied the board to write out a check to help fund it.
The Investigator first became aware of this matter back in December when it obtained emails exchanged between police officers stating the owner of the Anaheim Independent had gotten $10,000 from Serrano for his new blog and alleged it might be used as a platform to attack certain Santa Ana politicians. The Anaheim Independent is the previous name of the Anaheim Observer, an older blog that Cunningham still operates.
Excerpt from the board meeting minutes.
This newfound alliance between Cunningham and Serrano is yet another unexpected twist in The Investigator’s ongoing coverage of the embattled police union president of whom, at least from our perspective, has made what could be aptly described as a Faustian bargain with a political consultant who is sometimes at odds with–if not been completely opposed to–the goals of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association.
For example, on April 2, 2020, Cunningham made an urgent appeal to all of his Santa Ana friends on Facebook to vote “no” on the recall of Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias, a right-wing Republican the police union spent $341,000 to remove from her seat. Beneath his message was one of her anti-recall videos which not only portrayed Serrano as a greedy “union boss,” but characterized people like him as “bullies.”
There is no evidence the OC Independent receives any direct funding from the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. But it is not a coincidence many political consultants with links to the Orange County Republican Party gravitate to this business advocacy group. This entity has always been an important hub of social networks for jobs because it is connected to many key players in industry and government.
For matter of record, The Investigator emailed several questions to Cunningham asking him about the $10,000 donation he received from the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, if he had conversations with Serrano or anybody else about the OC Independent running “negative articles about certain Santa Ana politicians,” and if he plans to approach other public employee unions for money to help fund this blog.
In response to our inquiry, Cunningham wrote the following:
OC Independent, like other independent news organizations, has a broad base of supporters to pursue its mission. We will not sell, share or trade our donors’ names or personal information with any other entity, nor send mailings to our donors on behalf of other organizations to respect donor privacy. As editor, I ensure our news stories are researched thoroughly, all subjects and stakeholders have an opportunity to comment, and then present the news to the public.
The Investigator also made three attempts to contact Serrano about this matter, emailing him questions quite similar to those we posed to Cunningham. But despite giving him an ample amount of time to issue a response, the police union president so far has not bothered replying to any of our messages. However, if we do eventually hear from him, we will most assuredly let our readers know.
Below is copy of the draft minutes of the September 23, 2021 board meeting of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association.
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