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Strange Bedfellows: UFCW Local 324’s Alliance With The Anaheim Chamber of Commerce to Legalize Cannabis

Ashleigh Aitken speaking at the headquarters of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324 in November 2018.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

In early January, Ashleigh Aitken, the newly-elected mayor of Anaheim, did what many public officials before her had done. She took full advantage of her unfettered access to the city’s vast pool of free tickets to luxury suites at the Honda Center and Angel Stadium and gave a few of them away to supporters who helped put her in office. Several emails show the mayor rattled off names of those she felt deserved them.

Though her abuse of this privilege was modest compared to others who previously served on the council, it was nevertheless significant. According to a Form 802 that Aitken filed on January 8th, she reported giving two tickets worth $350 for a Ducks vs. Bruins game at the Honda Center to Derek Smith, political director of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324, a union whose headquarters is based in Buena Park.

Derek Smith.

Besides the fact a Form 401 filed with the city clerk’s office reports that Smith was treasurer of an independent expenditure committee which spent $138,155 to help Aitken become mayor in 2022, The Anaheim Investigator has discovered his union has a “secret.” Though not criminal in nature, it’s deeply embarrassing. In fact, some people with intimate knowledge of it are apprehensive to talk about it openly with journalists.

It took The Investigator more than a year to find it, and that was only after painstaking research. However, all the effort put in was well worth it. We have uncovered a story that is not only remarkable, but lends credence to the old adage “politics makes strange bedfellows.” It involves an alliance of people with nothing in common, who were brought together by a shared interest. And it implicates Democrats and Republicans.

Todd Ament, Jeff Flint, and Harry Sidhu.

Reliable sources have told The Investigator that sometime in late 2019 or early 2020, Todd Ament, president and CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Jeff Flint, president of Core Strategic Group, and Mayor Harry Sidhu approached UFCW Local 324 and cut a deal with them: that in return for a labor peace agreement in any cannabis ordinance they brought forth, the union was to exert pressure on the council to vote “yes.”

Ament, Flint, and Sidhu–sometimes euphemistically referred to as “the cabal”–already had three votes locked up, including Councilman Jordan Brandman’s, who reportedly was one of their point men. But they needed a total of four to get it passed. That’s where UFCW Local 324 came in. They would mobilize members of their union to aggressively lobby any possible holdouts. And indeed, there is evidence this did in fact occur.

In the ordinance that was ultimately drafted–which purportedly was written by Flint–a labor peace agreement was included. And ironically, it was more “pro-labor” than legislation backed by Governor Gavin Newsom in October 2019. Whereas the law Newsom supported required cannabis businesses that have more then twenty employees enter into such an agreement, Anaheim’s proposal only required two, but that they be full-time.

From the proposed ordinance.

Anaheim wasn’t the only city UFCW Local 324 was committed to getting a labor peace agreement. For example, minutes of one Stanton City Council meeting reveal: “Mr. Derek Smith, Political Director, UFCW 324, submitted an e-comment requesting that the City consider the inclusion of ‘Labor Peace’ language that would provide clarity to the cannabis industry and future workers regarding the quality of jobs that are expected from the City.”

The push to legalize cannabis businesses was derailed when The Investigator published articles in May 2020 which revealed Sidhu’s son not only was a pot consultant, but lived on his father’s four-acre Anaheim Hills estate. Though the Fair Political Practices Commission issued a letter clearing the mayor of any potential conflict of interests, one councilman sympathetic to the cannabis ordinance voted “no” because he distrusted Sidhu.

For reasons that aren’t clear, Ament, Flint, and Sidhu abandoned the idea of getting a cannabis ordinance passed by council. The November 2020 election led to Avelino Valencia III and Jose Diaz winning seats. Though backed by Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, they weren’t trusted. And Gloria Ma’ae–who opposed the original ordinance–later replaced Brandman. But in late 2021, a new strategy emerged, thanks to UFCW Local 324.

The Silva petition.

On Friday, October 15, 2021, the Anaheim City Clerk received a letter from Stacy Silva declaring that it was her “intention to circulate a petition” to gather signatures to put an initiative on the ballot entitled “The Anaheim Cannabis Regulation and Land Use Measure.” She filed all the required paperwork and paid a $200 filing fee. Silva instructed the city clerk that all correspondence be sent to her lawyer at his Woodland Hills office.

Evidence The Investigator uncovered shows that Silva, who is a resident of West Anaheim, wasn’t some middle-aged mom off the street who favored cannabis legalization. Public records available online from the U.S. Department of Labor reports that she has been employed as an office clerk at UFCW Local 324’s headquarters in Buena Park at least since 2009. Furthermore, Silva is listed as a “friend” on Derek Smith’s Facebook account.

Silva’s lawyer was Bradley Hertz, an election law attorney who had done work for Ament. A Form 410 filed with the city clerk’s office on September 26, 2018 reveals he was treasurer of an independent expenditure committee called “No on L, a Project of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce,” which spent $932,053 in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat a measure which raised the wages of workers of hotels that received tax subsidies.

The text of the initiative Silva submitted was mostly a copy of the cannabis ordinance championed by Ament, Flint, and Sidhu in 2020. However, there were exceptions. First, the number of permitted cannabis retailers allowed to operate in the city was increased from from 20 to 30; one single entity could control up to five of them, instead of three. Second, the requirement workers be full-time to qualify for a labor peace agreement was scrapped.

Herein lies the “smoking gun” of UFCW Local 324’s alliance with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce to legalize cannabis businesses. They first tried to pass an ordinance through the council, but failed. Now there was evidence they were collaborating on a ballot initiative. However, there is a catch. Ament had resigned before Silva filed her paperwork with the city clerk. That begs the question: who took his place?

Regardless of what the case might be, Silva withdrew her initiative on October 28th claiming it needed “minor edits.” Then she submitted a new version on November 22nd, which reinstated the requirement workers be full-time to qualify for a labor peace agreement. But after December 7th, everything stopped. When The Investigator asked City Clerk Theresa Bass what happened, she said Silva didn’t continue the filing process.

The Dalati petition.

Three months later, a new face appeared. Belal Dalati, a local real estate agent, walked into the city clerk’s office on Monday, March 21, 2022 with a letter notifying them it was his “intention to circulate a petition” to gather signatures to put a cannabis initiative on the ballot. Most of the paperwork he filed was identical to Silva’s. He used the same title, preamble, and law firm as a contact. But the text of the initiative was different.

Evidence suggests Dalati had a longtime interest in cannabis. Several emails show Councilwoman Lucille Kring–a close ally of the Anaheim Chamber of Commercepersonally set up a meeting between him, City Manager Chris Zapata, and City Attorney Robert Fabela to discuss this matter. “A friend of mine, who is a businessman in the city, would like to meet with you both about cannabis,” she told them on January 10, 2020.

Unlike Silva’s initiatives, Dalati’s came from Adam Spiker, of Spiker Rendon Consulting, Inc., a cannabis industry lobbyist located in downtown Los Angeles. The initiative he touted was very “pro-labor.” Not only did it drop the requirement workers be full-time to qualify for a labor peace agreement, but a points system was set up to give preferences to applicants of city licenses who had good employee and community benefits plans.

One of Spiker’s former clients was Catalyst Cannabis, a retail chain of “weed stores” with locations in Santa Ana and Long Beach. The workers at all of those outlets were organized by UFCW Local 324. The relationship between this company and the union was so positive they organized law clinics at the latter’s Buena Park headquarters in 2021 to help clean up employee criminal records. One of the attorneys present at the April clinic: Ashleigh Aitken.

Emails show Annie Mezzacappa, Sidhu’s chief of staff, was forwarding updates on how Dalati’s initiative was progressing to her boss, Flint, and Laura Cunningham, the new president and CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. When The Investigator questioned Cunningham about this, she said “I am regularly cc’d on emails. I cannot comment on unspecified emails. Please note that I never sat in on any cannabis meetings.”

By May 16th, Dalati changed his mind. At the urging of Bill Taormina and Paul Kott, two local businessman who were opposed to legalizing cannabis businesses, he withdrew his initiative. In a text message Taormina sent to Councilman Trevor O’Neil, he alleged that “Bill Dahlati [sic] was forced into filing the petition by Jeff Flint and other ‘dope dealer’ promoters. He was actually threatened by them not to withdraw the petition ….”

File:Seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.svg

On the very same day Dalati yanked his initiative, State Attorney General Rob Bonta announced he was “pausing” an agreement his office made with the City of Anaheim settling a dispute over the state’s surplus land act. The reason? The Federal Bureau of Investigation notified him they were looking into allegations of political corruption in connection with the pending sale of the Angel Stadium to Arte Moreno, an Arizona billionaire.

In the days and weeks that followed, the public would learn–thanks to FBI affidavits released in court filings–this scandal wasn’t just about Sidhu and the stadium deal. At the very heart of it was Melahat Rafiei, a political consultant and Democratic Party operative, who is alleged to have committed various crimes in connection with the Anaheim Chamber Of Commerce’s attempt to legalize cannabis businesses.

However, in writing this article, The Investigator made a decision to mostly stay away from Rafiei. Why did we do this? First, her name didn’t pop up in anything having to do this story. Second, the FBI affidavits that have been released so far offer an incomplete and distorted view of what transpired. Third, the testimony offered in those affidavits are solely focused on proving violations of federal criminal laws. It doesn’t talk about what was legal.

Besides Rafiei, it’s erroneous to presume that everybody who worked along with Ament, Flint, and Sidhu to legalize cannabis businesses broke the law. Nothing can be further from the truth. The reality is, an overwhelming majority of people that ended up being dragged into this affair–including pretty much everybody we mentioned in this article–are innocent of any crimes. They are what we would call “victims of circumstance.”

The Investigator knows despite our good faith efforts to gather accurate information for this article, what we have written isn’t the full story. And it’s possible a few corrections will need to be made as we learn more. But what’s important is we have exposed the biggest “secret” of this scandal: UFCW Local 324s alliance with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce to legalize cannabis businesses. And it implicates Democrats and Republicans.

The political ramifications of this “secret” are political dynamite. For example, during last year’s election, in order to win the endorsement of the Orange County Register, then-candidate Aitken told the editors “the former mayor and his tightly knit ‘cabal’ were allowed to run roughshod at City Hall, and created a culture of intimidation for staff, management, concerned residents, and the smaller business community.”

What Aitken neglected to mention is UFCW Local 324, a major union of whom she has had close ties to since 2018, was involved in a “pot deal” with the same “former mayor and his tightly knit ‘cabal.'” Though there is no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing, it does vastly complicate things. Maybe she didn’t know about it, but giving $350 worth of city-owned tickets to Smith, their political director, won’t help her in any pleas of innocence.

To further understand the magnitude of her quandary, the very same political director Aitken rewarded with tickets was also the treasurer of an independent expenditure committee which spent $138,155–most of it being UFCW cash–to help her become mayor. The only other group in town that invested almost as heavily in her campaign was the Anaheim Police Officers Association, and they came in a distant second at $92,556.

For matter of record, The Investigator asked for interviews or sent questions out to Belal Dalati, Harry Sidhu, Derek Smith, Stacy Silva, Adam Spiker and others we believed had knowledge about this matter. Most didn’t answer our emails or reply to voice messages. One person declined to speak citing ongoing “local and federal investigations.” Ashleigh Aitken ignored our request for comment on the Anaheim Ducks tickets she gave to Smith.

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