Archive for the category “City of Anaheim”

Anaheim City Councilman Quietly Employed Girlfriend of Top Serrano Associate as ‘Senior Policy Aide’

Avelino Valencia (left) with Gerry Serrano (right), president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, in June 2018.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

Councilman Avelino Valencia III quietly employed Tina Arias Miller, the girlfriend of a top associate to Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, as a “Senior Policy Aide” during a brief period of time between 2021 and 2022, according to public records obtained by The Anaheim Investigator.

Miller, who is president of the Rancho Santiago Community College District Board of Trustees, has been involved in a relationship with Ernesto Amado Conde, a retired Santa Ana Police sergeant known to be Serrano’s closest ally. He is also a consultant for the police union, earning thousands of dollars in fees from them each year.

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.

The last Form 700 that Miller filed.

This isn’t the only time Valencia has tried to hide his ties to Serrano and his associates. Last year, The Investigator discovered he gave city-owned Angels baseball tickets to Gerry through his wife Serina. In the original Form 802 he submitted, he tried to use her maiden name to conceal this fact, but was later forced to refile it using her married name.

The councilman’s questionable behavior spurred The Investigator to look much deeper leading us to not only uncover evidence of his longtime friendship with Miller, Conde, and Serrano, but the police union president’s hidden relationships with other powerful Democratic Party politicians, including Fiona Ma, the state treasurer.

Valencia has known Serrano since 2018. Sources have alleged the two used to “hang out” together at the Santa Ana Police Officers Association headquarters quite often. Furthermore, they claim Serrano was a guest at his wedding to Monica Mungia, who is employed as a principal with the Anaheim Elementary School District.

Anaheim Police Aren’t Investigating Candidate’s Bizarre Claims Blogger Made Death Threat, Vandalized Signs

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 into this 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 8225 E. Santa Ana Canyon Road in 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.

Did City Attorney Advise Councilman to ‘Lie’ About Reasons Why He Gave Tickets to Campaign Backers?

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 Officer Mike 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.

Councilman Avelino Valencia.

It was remarks Valencia made at the June 8, 2021 meeting of the Anaheim City Council which set into motion the email exchange which led Fabela to offer advice. During public comments, a resident who read one of our articles blasted him for distributing tickets to “well-connected friends and political backers.” In response, the councilman said he, like others, just gave them to “public members who were doing good work for the community.”

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.

Of course, Valencia never replied. And that was not entirely unexpected. The Investigator already knew he gave 28 city-owned Angels baseball tickets worth $5,740 to 13 campaign backers who spent $38,938 on his bid for city council–about 60% of all tickets he handed out during those months. The councilman would have had a difficult time explaining to us what kind of “good work” these people did besides helping him win an election.

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.

That Valencia sought advice from Fabela on how to respond to The Investigator’s email is in itself amusing. After all, the councilman had already gone on record at the June 8th meeting as saying he just gave tickets to “public members who were doing good work for the community.” Since all we requested was that he provide us with information as to the type of “good work” they did, why was there a need to consult the city attorney?

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 councilman had 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 email that 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 802 Valencia 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.

For example, five months after the councilman got advice from Fabela, he gave a pair of city-owned Los Tigres Del Norte concert tickets at the Honda Center to Gloria Alvarado, who is executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation and a vice-chair in the Orange County Democratic Party. So what “public purpose” did Valencia say this was for on his Form 802? You guessed it: “attracting or rewarding volunteer public service.”

Below is the chain of emails set into motion by The Investigator’s inquiry into the recipients of Councilman Avelino Valencia’s tickets on June 17, 2021.

Sidhu Registered Helicopter at Arizona Home of Businessman Who Owned The Catch Restaurant

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.

The Federal Aviation Administration Civil Aviation Registry shows Sidhu listed “8024 E. Lone Mountain Rd” in Scottsdale, Arizona as the address for the certificate they issued for his helicopter in 2020. But according to the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office, that property is owned by the Don and Ana Cardamon Family Revocable Trust, of whom The Investigator believes are the parents of Manzella’s wife, Michelle Cardamon Manzella.

In August 2019, Joseph Manzella filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to register the mark “Olive Pit Grill,” an effort that was later abandoned because of strong opposition from a similarly-branded restaurant located in Boca Rotan, Florida. However, in the original paperwork Manzella submitted to the federal government in this case, he reported that “8024 E. Lone Mountain Rd” was his address.

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 Court Arizona 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.”

Though The Catch permanently closed its doors in October 2021, ostensibly due to financial problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Manzella is linked to a holding company called Tableside Partners Inc., which still owns and operates several restaurants and brew pubs here in Orange County, including the TAPS Fish House and Brewery in Brea and TAPS Brewery and Barrel Room in Tustin.

Sidhu used The Catch for a major fundraiser in 2017.

Ever since the State Attorney General’s Office filed documents containing an affidavit from the Federal Bureau of Investigation alleging that the mayor committed tax fraud by registering his helicopter at an Arizona address, much media attention has been focused on that angle. But so far, aside from one clever person on Twitter, nobody has really bothered to investigate the reason why that address was chosen.

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.]

Democratic Mayoral Candidate Says Campaign Ended Ties With Consultant Under FBI Scrutiny for Alleged Bribes

Ashleigh Aitken (left), Democratic candidate for Anaheim mayor, with Melahat Rafiei (right), owner of Progressive Solutions Consulting, in 2019.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

The Anaheim Investigator has discovered that a Form 460 filed by the “Aitken for Mayor 2022” campaign committee reported they made a $10,000 payment to Progressive Solutions Consulting, a firm owned by Melahat Rafiei, a Democratic Party operative who is at the center of a corruption scandal involving cannabis businesses and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.

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.”

On Thursday, Rafiei admitted to the Voice of OC she was “CW1,” a cooperating witness mentioned in an affidavit the Federal Bureau of Investigation filed in federal court to support criminal charges against Todd Ament, former president and CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. However, she has denied allegations she tried to bribe public officials in the City of Irvine.

Besides being a political consultant, Rafiei also happens to be the co-founder of WeCann, a company based near downtown Santa Ana that 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.”

Furthermore, Rafiei, who is a resident of Anaheim Hills, not only is a member of the Cultural and Heritage Commission of the City of Anaheim, but was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom in September 2021 to serve on the Board of Directors of the Orange County Fair Board in Costa Mesa, a deliberative body of which Aitken has also been a part of since 2012.

Santa Ana Police Union Made $10,000 Donation to Blog Run by Political Consultant Tied to Anaheim Chamber

Matt Cunningham (left), Editor & Publisher of the OC Independent, with his wife Laura (right), President & CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

The Anaheim Investigator has acquired a copy of the draft minutes of the September 23, 2021 board meeting of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association which reports they made a $10,000 donation to the OC Independent, a right-wing news blog started last year by Matt Cunningham, a well-known political consultant with deep ties to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and the Orange County Republican Party.

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.”

Furthermore, Serrano’s alliance with Cunningham becomes even more bizarre over the fact the company the latter hired to set up the OC Independent website, HashtagPinpoint, is run by Pasquale Talarico, a former Deputy Chief of Staff for ex-State Senator John M. W. Moorlach, a politician who literally built his entire career on calling for drastic cuts to public employee pensions, especially for law enforcement personnel.

According to OpenSecrets, an independent, non-partisan organization which tracks the flow of money in U.S. politics, HashtagPinpoint earned about $40,500 from the Orange County Republican Party in 2020, making them their top vendor that year. Another one of their clients is the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, of which Cunningham’s wife, Laura, took over the reigns as President and CEO at the end of March.

Another firm tied to the OC Independent, albeit loosely, is GC Strategies, LLC, owned by Cameron Wessel. Earlier this year, Briana Walker, a Mission Viejo activist, not only discovered one of its employees was writing for this blog, but that Wessel opened an office a few doors down from the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. Walker also noted he has a contract with the City of Anaheim to be Councilman Trevor O’Neil’s senior policy aide.

The Investigator has been aware for quite some time now that O’Neil is a close friend of Cunningham, even occasionally stumbling across email communications between the two during routine public records act requests. However, what is not known publicly is that both men have had a longstanding relationship with Fred Whitaker, a local attorney who has been chairman of the Orange County Republican Party since 2015.

Cunningham and Whitaker.

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.

Santa Ana Police Union Spent $2,500 to Help Re-Elect Future Councilman to Democratic Party Central Committee

Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, with Fiona Ma, California State Treasurer, and other close friends.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

In a highly unusual move, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, under the leadership of Gerry Serrano, their president, spent approximately $2,500 in a failed effort to help then-future Councilman Avelino Valencia III get re-elected to his seat on the Central Committee of the Orange County Democratic Party in March 2020, according to campaign finance reports filed with the City of Santa Ana on July 31st of that year.

Paperwork that Valencia submitted to the Orange County Registrar of Voters shows he raised $6,600 for that race, of which $2,500 was from the Santa Ana Police Officers Association Political Action Committee. The rest of the money came from a candidates committee controlled directly by his employer, Tom Daly, a Democratic State Assemblyman who currently serves the 69th District, an area covering Anaheim and Santa Ana.

From a Form 460 Valencia filed for his central committee race.

It is extremely odd for an organization like the Santa Ana Police Officers Association to give funds to a candidate seeking election to the central committee of a political party. But if anything, it is indicative of how important Valencia is to Serrano and his top allies. Indeed, The Anaheim Investigator has uncovered evidence suggesting only friends who are part of the latter’s inner circle are given this type of favorable treatment.

As a case in point, Valencia filed a Form 460 on January 28, 2021 reporting that he transferred $400 in surplus campaign funds–essentially leftover police union cash–to Tina Arias Miller, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Rancho Santiago Community College District. Sources have alleged Miller is the girlfriend of Ernesto Amado Conde, a retired Santa Ana Police sergeant, who is one of Serrano’s most trusted associates.

Valencia transferred $400 to alleged girlfriend of Conde.

Documents reviewed by The Investigator not only reveal that the Santa Ana Police Officers Association Political Action Committee also spent $2,500 to help Miller get elected to the Central Committee of the Orange County Democratic Party, but another independent expenditure committee they are linked to pumped $2,500 into her bid to win a seat on the Board of Trustees of the Rancho Santiago Community College District.

However, Miller wasn’t the only one who benefited from this cash. Much of it ended up in the pockets of Conde, who at that time owned a campaign consulting firm called Indigo Public Affairs, which has done thousands of dollars worth of business with the Santa Ana Police Officers Association. For example, one Form 460 that Miller filed for her central committee race reported she paid him $2,900 for services rendered.

Miller and Conde.

With respect to Valencia, the Santa Ana Police Officers Association followed a similar pattern of giving. Not only did they hand him $2,500 for his ill-fated central committee race, but they spent $2,100 (the maximum) on his Anaheim City Council election. Furthermore, Serrano chipped in an additional $750–perhaps in return for the $250 he got from Valencia when he ran for a Garden Grove City Council seat in 2018.

But campaign contributions aren’t the only things that tie Valencia to Serrano’s inner circle. Last month, The Investigator reported the councilman gave two city-owned Angels tickets valued at $410 to Gerry’s wife, Serina, and may have tried to conceal this fact from public disclosure by attempting to file a false Form 802 using her maiden name. And we have already mentioned in an article published in June that he gave tickets to Conde.

A Form 802 Valencia filed shows he gave tickets to Conde.

Of course, all of this begs the question as to why Valencia is so cozy with Serrano and his top allies. But the answer is quite simple. The Investigator believes the former is only using his seat on the Anaheim City Council as a stepping stone to get elected to the state legislature in the 69th State Assembly District. After all, Daly, his boss, is termed out in 2024. However, to do that, he’ll need support not only in Anaheim, but in Santa Ana.

Regardless of what one may think about the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, they wield a lot of influence and power, if not more so in a top-two primary system where all voters may cast a ballot for any candidate, regardless of political affiliation. Their backing in the 69th District could prove critical in helping a right-wing Democrat like Valencia squeeze past the primary with a small plurality of votes and end up in Sacramento.

Did Councilman Try to File False Form to Hide Fact He Gave Tickets to Wife of Santa Ana Police Union President?

Gerry Serrano (left), President of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, with Serina (right), his wife, at an event in Newport Beach in 2017.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

In 2019, when Gabriel San Roman, a former investigative journalist for the defunct-OC Weekly, reviewed more than 1,539 ticket disclosure formsForm 802s as they are called—to see who received the thousands of dollars worth of tickets the city got each year from Angel Stadium and Honda Center, he noticed an unusual practice: some council members were trying to avoid publicly disclosing the identity of persons they were really giving tickets to by reporting that they gave them to their spouse instead.

For example, San Roman discovered that then-Councilman Jordan Brandman had given city-owned tickets valued at $900 to Carrie Nocella, a lobbyist for The Walt Disney Company. But on the Form 802 that was filed, he stated those tickets were meant for Tom Nocella, her husband. Brandman had a ready-made excuse. “Tom is a longtime Anaheim resident,” he said. “Like all other council members, I regularly recognize numerous residents, community groups and city employees by behesting them tickets …”

Unfortunately for Brandman, that same rationale can’t be used to explain why, according to two Form 802s filed earlier this year, he handed out $1,230 worth of Angels tickets to Suzanne Bilodeau. Besides the fact Suzanne has lived in Orange for almost thirty years, her husband is Denis Bilodeau, a close friend of Brandman’s. Both served together on the Board of Directors of the Orange County Water District for several years before the latter resigned from his seat on the Anaheim City Council in August.

Likewise, when The Anaheim Investigator learned that Councilman Avelino Valencia III gave two Angels tickets valued at $410 to Serina Serrano, a resident of Garden Grove, we looked at who her spouse is to fully understand the reason why she got them. Serina is married to Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association. As we have previously reported, both Gerry and his union made $2,850 in campaign contributions to the “Valencia for City Council 2020” committee last year.

But documents The Investigator obtained under the California Public Records Act show Valencia may have tried to go further than this. An earlier Form 802 the councilman submitted offers prima facie evidence suggesting he made an attempt to hide Serina’s identity from public disclosure by using Serina Porras, her maiden name, instead of Serina Serrano, her married (and legal) one. If this form had been officially filed with the city under her maiden name, it would have been much harder to link her to Gerry.

Screenshot of the withdrawn Form 802 with Serina’s maiden name.

However, Valencia eventually had to withdraw that Form 802 and replace it with a new one which used her legal name. Why? When Serina had a problem downloading Angels tickets to a wallet on her smartphone, she questioned city staff about emails being sent which made reference to her maiden name. “Why is it addressed Serina Porras?” she asked Luiz Torres, a city council assistant who works for Valencia. “I haven’t used that last name in over 23 years. So it doesn’t reflect on any of my ID’s.”

Serina asking why her maiden name is being used.

In a followup message, Torres told Serina that he got this information directly from the councilman. “I was unaware that we had your old name filed,” he typed. But in a stunning admission, he acknowledged to Serina he knew what her legal name was: “Frankly, I used Serina Serrano for this email thread because that was your apparent name based on your email address.” Indeed, The Investigator has an unredacted copy of her personal email address and can confirm he was using it to communicate with her.

Though Torres would later claim Valencia was “unaware of the name change,” all of this begs the question of how he knew Serina’s maiden name was Porras? Furthermore, the councilman himself most likely provided his city council assistant with her personal email address. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume since that email has Serrano as her last name, that’s how she identifies herself? Perhaps it should be noted she uses it as a last name on all of her identifiable social media accounts as well.

Under California state law, there are criminal statutes—specifically Penal Code 115—which make it a crime to file a false Form 802 with a government agency. For example, if a person knowingly files a document that contains inaccurate information, they could face a felony charge. However, a document has to have been officially filed with an agency before a prosecution can take place. That didn’t happen in this situation. The Form 802 in question was withdrawn and quickly replaced with a corrected version.

Regardless of what Valencia was trying to do, he definitely had a motive to conceal his ties to Gerry Serrano. Not only has the latter been a controversial and divisive figure in Santa Ana politics, but he has been subject of multiple investigations into alleged misconduct by local, state, and federal authorities–including reportedly being the target of a grand jury probe. The councilman’s squeaky-clean image would undoubtedly be tarnished if he was caught handing out tickets to such a troubled individual.

For matter of record, The Investigator emailed Valencia approximately three times requesting comment for this article. We wanted to know the reason why he felt motivated to use Serina’s maiden name on the original Form 802 he submitted, then later withdrew due to her questioning why it was being used. We were hoping that his reply would put our concerns about this matter to rest. But so far, the dapper councilman from District 4 hasn’t bothered responding to any of the messages we sent him.

Newly Appointed Councilwoman Attended ‘Victory Party’ at Mayor’s Anaheim Hills Estate in 2018

Mayor Harry Sidhu (left) welcoming Gloria Ma’ae (right) to his “Victory Party” at his four-acre Anaheim Hills estate in December 2018.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

During the Tuesday, September 14th meeting of the Anaheim City Council, when Councilman Jose Moreno began raising objections to the “process” that body had chosen to select a replacement candidate for a councilman who had vacated his seat, hinting it was “preordained,” or rigged in favor of applicant Gloria Ma’ae, Mayor Harry Sidhu could barely contain his anger.

“Councilmember Moreno, I’m very much disappointed in you in bringing this up,” Sidhu said in a raised tone of voice. “It is one of the fairest process we’ve been through. We gave every applicant an opportunity to meet with the residents. We gave every opportunity for the residents to come out and speak, whether in favor, or whether in opposition of the candidates who applied.”

“It was given opportunity of the applicant to have one-to-one meet with the councilmembers,” he continued. “[T]he way it was done, was proper, giving everybody an opportunity to come and speak. I spoke, and I sat down with every applicant here …. [Y]ou’re trying to talk about unfair process is … in my opinion, is wrong. And this was a completely a transparent process…”

But when it comes to transparency, The Anaheim Investigator knows Sidhu has a less-than-stellar reputation. For example, when the mayor joined along with an unsuccessful scheme by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce to legalize cannabis businesses, he failed to disclose the fact his son is a high-paid consultant to the pot industry who was well-positioned to profit from it.

Likewise, at the September 14th council meeting, when Sidhu tried to rush through Ma’ae’s appointment with very little discussion or input, he said nothing about his close personal ties with her. Besides the fact Ma’ae is a known supporter of the mayor, she was a “special guest” at a “Victory Party” he held on his four-acre Anaheim Hills estate in December 2018.

Sidhu giving Ma’ae a hug.

The Investigator has roughly a dozen photographs of Ma’ae that were taken at the event. Besides the three we have published here, others show her mingling with then-Councilman Jordan Brandman and Lea Ament, the wife of Todd Ament, President and CEO of the Anaheim Chamber. In most photos, Ma’ae is seen with persons who would later be linked to Anaheim First.

Ma’ae chatting with Sidhu.

Despite what reservations The Investigator has about Moreno, he was correct: Ma’ae’s appointment was “preordained.” However, the “process” of selecting her really began in 2007 when she started participating in a “front group” called Support Our Anaheim Resort, run by a Newport Beach public relations expert hired by The Walt Disney Company and Anaheim Chamber.

Recently, “front groups” like SOAR, and now Anaheim First, have been one mechanism the resort elite has used to vet candidates for appointment to various boards, commissions and city council seats. The decision to put Ma’ae on the council was years in the making. That doesn’t mean Sidhu’s role should be discounted. But he’s just a cog in a much bigger political machine.

[Update: An earlier version of this post stated Gloria Ma’ae started participating in Support Our Anaheim Resort in 2011. That is incorrect. She began in 2007.]

Uncle of Councilman’s Wife, Who Donated $200 to His Campaign, Got City-Owned Tickets Worth $410

Alex Ruiz (center) celebrating the marriage of Monica Munguia (left), his niece, to Avelino Valencia III (right), at their wedding in 2019.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

In a careful re-examination of all Form 802s that Councilman Avelino Valencia III filed in the months of April and May, The Anaheim Investigator has discovered a local businessman he gave city-owned baseball tickets to is also an uncle of his wife, making him legally his nephew.

In June, The Investigator reported that Alex Ruiz, owner of Alex’s Flooring Company, received two tickets from Valencia valued at $410 for an Angels vs. Indians game on May 19th. Furthermore, campaign finance records also show Ruiz had contributed $200 to his city council race in 2020.

A Form 802 Valencia filed shows he gave tickets to Ruiz.

But at that time, we didn’t know Ruiz was a relative of Valencia. Our latest investigation into who the councilman has been handing out tickets to was spurred, ironically, by an unusual email we obtained from the City of Anaheim through a routine California Public Records Act request.

In that email, Luiz Torres, a city council assistant, warned Valencia The Investigator was “looking into each and every council members” ticket filings. As a result of this message, we decided all the persons he named on his Form 802s deserved a second look to see if we missed anything. And we did.

Much of the new evidence comes from social media. In a message Ruiz posted on Facebook in 2019, he tags Valencia and his wife. “Had the great pleasure of attending my beautiful niece Monica and Avelino [sic] wedding this weekend,” he typed. Also included: a photo of himself with the newlyweds.

In two messages Ruiz posted in 2020, he encouraged all of his friends to back Avelino’s effort to win a seat on the city council. “If you’re in the Anaheim area please support my nephew. A wonderful person and very committed to helping out the community,” he waxed enthusiastically.

On May 19th of this year, he posted photos and videos of himself attending the Angels vs. Indians game. In one 46-second video Ruiz shot with his phone, he parades around the luxury suite his nephew’s tickets gave him access to, showing off the amenities. “Check out where I’m at,” he boasts.

Our discovery that Valencia gave tickets to his uncle adds a new twist to this story. Up until now, the councilman has been able to skirt around the rules and hand them out to close personal friends, campaign backers, and Democratic Party operatives without facing any repercussions.

But these tickets are public assets. Valencia is a public official. There are rules, policies, and laws–everything from local administrative regulations to federal anti-corruption statutes–which not only forbid, but make it illegal for a politician to use the power of their office to benefit family members.

Though a more thorough investigation needs to be conducted into this matter by knowledgeable legal experts to determine if Valencia has crossed the line and violated any civil or criminal laws, it wouldn’t be premature for us to say that he has already done so at least when it comes to government ethics.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: