However, The Anaheim Investigator has uncovered evidence that Aitken not only secretly met with John Carpino, president of the Angels Baseball team, at a coffee shop in late February, but that the meeting she had with him might have dealt with the Angel Stadium assessment. Why? It was scheduled only thirty minutes before city officials toured the facility with a group of consultants interested in bidding for the job.
Phone text messages The Investigator obtained under the public records act show Carpino initiated contact with Aitken on Thursday, February 16th. “Do you have time for coffee in the next few weeks?” he asked. “Yes, I do. Can you meet me at 8:30 at Bodhi coffee on Monday the 27th?,” the mayor responded. On February 26th, Aitken texted him again to confirm the meeting was still on. “Yes, looking forward to it,” he said.
Aitken confirming meeting with Carpino.
When The Investigator carefully reviewed the February calendar that Mayor Aitken made available to the public which supposedly lists all of the meetings “requested” of her that month, absolutely nothing is mentioned about her having coffee with Carpino on the 27th. During the last week, she stated only two things occurred: a city council meeting and a meeting with “Disneyland representatives.”
No mention of Carpino meeting in the mayor’s calendar.
Partial screenshot of website listing Angel Stadium tour.
Furthermore, several letters show that just days before their meeting, both Carpino and ArentFox Schiff LLP, a prestigious law firm retained by the sports team, demanded that the city cancel the tour of Angel Stadium, asserting it was a violation of the lease agreement–a claim vigorously rejected by City Manager James Vanderpool and City Attorney Robert Fabela. Carpino made sure to copy his letter to Aitken.
So far, the mayor hasn’t responded to questions The Investigator sent regarding the secret meeting she had with Carpino in late February. But perhaps it should be noted these types of behind-the-scenes political maneuvers with executives of the Angels Baseball team are part of the reason why former Mayor Harry Sidhu got into trouble with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and was forced to resign his seat.
Below are letters exchanged in February between representatives of the Angels Baseball team and the City of Anaheim regarding the tour of Angel Stadium.
The front entrance to the Catalyst Cannabis Co. retail outlet in Santa Ana which is located right next to the 55 Fwy.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
Damian Martin, Esq., co-founder of Catalyst CannabisCo., an expanding retail chain of “weed stores” with locations in Long Beach and Santa Ana, told The Anaheim Investigator via email he authored a measure in June 2021 that would have put the question of legalizing cannabis businesses before Anaheim voters the very next year had it collected the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.
“However as also widely reported the South Bay projects began to go very poorly,” he typed. “[T]he cities were very opposed to us and our approach, and there were internal disagreements on project strategy, and, as a result, there was a falling out between Catalyst and Spiker Rendon, such that by March 2022, Catalyst and Mr. Spiker / Spiker Rendon were no long actively working together.”
“Prior to the falling out, Anaheim was a city that Catalyst was planning to pursue cannabis policy advancement and licensing with Adam Spiker / Spiker Rendon as our consultant using the ‘South Bay Model’, i.e., through a ballot measure…. I was asked by Mr. Spiker to draft (and then drafted) the initial version of what became ‘The Anaheim Cannabis Regulation and Land Use Measure’ in June 2021.”
Martin said that after Catalyst and Spiker parted ways, his firm decided to completely abandon the initiative. “Other than the initial drafting, Catalyst did not play a behind-the-scenes role in trying to get ‘The Anaheim Cannabis Regulation and Land Use Measure’ going,” he said. Furthermore, he emphasized they were “not involved in any political / community coalition building” to support it.
But it never made it to the ballot. On May 16th, Dalati withdrew the measure at the urging of Paul Kott and Bill Taormina, two prominent businessmen who were anti-pot and opposed to the legalization of cannabis businesses in Anaheim. Taormina would allege in a text message to Councilman Trevor O’Neil that Dalati had been “forced” to file it “by Jeff Flint and other ‘dope deal’ promoters.”
As we first reported, 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 between 2019 and 2020 and cut a deal: that in return for a labor peace agreement in any ordinance they introduced to legalize cannabis businesses, the union was to pressure the council to vote “yes.”
Earlier this month, Adam Spiker declined to speak to The Investigator about this affair citing ongoing “local and federal investigations.” Though we don’t know how he managed to muscle his way into the arrangement the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce made with UFCW Local 324, the Orange County Register reported in May 2022 he had been in close contact with both Ament and Flint.
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.
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: that in return for a labor peace agreement in any ordinance they introduced to legalize cannabis businesses, the union was to pressure 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 ….”
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 Investigatorknows 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 324‘s 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.
For matter of record, The Investigator asked for interviews or sent questions outto 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.
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.
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.]
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…”
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.]
The City of Anaheim is undergoing planning efforts as part of the Anaheim Connects study to transform transportation and transit solutions in the Platinum Triangle Planning Area. The study seeks to provide opportunities to public/private partnerships, improve pedestrian and bicycle connections along the Santa Ana River, and improve the East/West transit connections between ARTIC and the Anaheim Resort Area. As part of this East/West transit connection, the Applicant is aware the City is studying a Street Car alignment that would provide potential stop(s) within the Project Site. While the City has not made any decisions regarding the alignment, design or system to be employed, the Project can accommodate potential stops in the future, if needed.
The Anaheim Investigator has known for quite some time the streetcar project is part of Anaheim Connects. But the Stadium Master Site Plan is the first “official” document that has made this information public. The link to Anaheim Connects on the city’s website says nothing about streetcars and only talks about mass transit in terms of vague generalities.
The logo for Anaheim Connects
Nobody should be surprised SRB Management LLC was aware of this study. Representatives from the Angels have been active participants in Mayor Sidhu’s Transit Options Task Force since its inception. For example, records show that Brian Sanders, Senior Director of Ballpark Operations, attended oneof their meetings in February 2020.
Regardless of what the case may be, there is circumstantial evidence that Anaheim Connects will still include a streetcar. At bare minimum, a line may be built that travels east and west along Katella Avenue, from ARTIC to Harbor Boulevard. However, the size and scope of any such project will ultimately be determined by the level of government funding.
Tony Serna, Vice-President of Agency 51, a Santa Ana advertising firm that has been a hidden force behind Anaheim First.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
Much has been written aboutAnaheim First, the faux grassroots organization which, according to legal documents filed with the California Secretary of State in 2019, is controlled by Todd Ament, President and CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. But very little, if anything, has been said about another entity thathas been a hidden force behind it.
If you have ever seen Anaheim First’s full page ads in a newspaper, a slick mailer inviting you to attend one of their town hall forums, or observed members wearing those proverbial blue shirts, you saw the handiwork of Agency 51, an advertising firm located in downtown Santa Ana, literally a block away from the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse.
On its LinkedIn page, Agency 51describes itself as a “full-service integrated marketing communications agency with offices in Orange County, CA, specializing in implementing complex, strategic advertising programs.” Founded as a partnership in 2001, it has two offices nationwide: one in Santa Ana and another in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Agency 51 boasting about Anaheim First on its website.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anaheim First was reinvented as a marketing tool to help local restaurants, microbreweries, wine bars, and other businesses survive the economic downturn. For months, residents have seen ads on social media sites, much like the one on Agency 51’sYouTube page, offering discounts for food, drink, and other items.
However, as more people get vaccinated and life returns back to “normal,” it will undoubtedly revert to its original form. At the March 23rd meeting of the Anaheim City Council, Mayor Harry Sidhu reaffirmed his commitment to the Chamber-backed group. He is up for re-election next year. Given Anaheim First is stacked with his allies, he’ll need all the support he can get.
Though this document mostly consists of mundane proposals to ease traffic congestion, it contains a startling revelation. On the first page, under the subheading “Transit,” one key recommendation is to create an “Express Gondola Service–two routes from ARTIC,” the city’s main bus and train terminal. The first route would “align with Disney Way and potentially connect to the proposed pedestrian bridge at Harbor/Disney,” a stop within walking distance of Disneyland and California Adventure theme parks. The second would “provide access to the convention center.”
A map that was included, entitled “Transit Recommendations Overview” and marked “DRAFT,” is also revealing. Not only does it offer a visual representation of where two routes of the proposed aerial gondola system would go, but it mentions “Planned Streetcar Stops” without showing where that line will be. But The Investigator believes, based on circumstantial evidence, that the streetcar is being referred to euphemistically as the “Potential At-Grade Transit Connection.” It would travel east and west along Katella Avenue, from ARTIC to Harbor Boulevard.
Map shows two routes of the proposed aerial gondola system.
The Georgetown-Rossyln Gondola project in Washington, D.C.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all discussions about transit options to connect the Platinum Triangle and Anaheim Resort either slowed down or were put on hold. Everything came to a standstill late last year when the U.S. Department of Transportation rejected a request by city staff for $2.379 million in BUILD grant program funds to pay for planning of a streetcar. Nevertheless, as more people get vaccinated and life returns to “normal,” this matter will soon come back to life. But for now, we know that streetcars aren’t the only things being planned for.
The documents in question, all of which were obtained through multiple California Public Records Act requests, consists of dozens of emails, memos, invoices, meeting agendas, maps, and audiovisual presentations which detail a robust discussion about transit options to connect the Platinum Triangle with the Anaheim Resort, mostly emphasizing the use of streetcars to shuttle tourists and workers from one location to another.
Despite the fact the COVID-19 pandemic seriously disrupted the ability of the City of Anaheim to operate, Mayor Sidhu’s Task Forceset up “street car subcommittees” and met online at least until August. Furthermore, city staff submitted a BUILDGrant proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation in May for $2.379 million in funds to pay for planning of a streetcar, a request that was ultimately rejected by the Trump administration.
One city official The Investigator spoke with regarding these matters said everything has been put on pause due to the coronavirus and nothing has been settled on as of yet. Indeed, recent documents suggest support has wavered for a streetcar system as elaborate as the ill-fated ARC project was. Nevertheless, there still seems to be backing for a line that would travel along KatellaAvenue, from ARTIC to the Anaheim Resort.
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