Archive for the category “Orange County Democratic Party”

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: 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.

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.

Past Involvement With Muzeo Museum, Community Services Board Brought Aitken, Faessel Together

Ashleigh Aitken, Josh Spears, Stephen Faessel, Bette Aitken, and Susan Faessel at the Muzeo Museum & Cultural Center in 2018.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

During The Anaheim Investigator’s recent inquiry into Norma Campos-Kurtzs close ties with Councilman Stephen Faessel, we accidentally stumbled across circumstantial evidence which suggested that another prominent Anaheim politician might also have had a similar relationship with him: Mayor Ashleigh Aitken.

For example, we discovered the mayor had some sort of link to Anaheim Beautiful, a non-profit organization that Faessel and his wife have championed. Multiple photographs The Investigator reviewed show Aitken attended a couple of events this group held at various venues, sometimes while the councilman’s wife was present.

In one photo of a September 2018 luncheon, Aitken can be seen seated at a table directly across from Campos-Kurtz, a who not only joined the Board of Directors of Anaheim Beautiful the previous year, but also maintained a tight relationship with Faessel through her job as district director for state Assemblyman Tom Daly.

Campos-Kurtz (back to camera) with Aitken in 2018.

In an attempt to learn more, The Investigator sent an email to Faessel asking him about his interactions with Aitken, including what knowledge he had about her with respect to Anaheim Beautiful, especially since evidence in our possession suggested that she had been affiliated with this non-profit for at least six years.

In response, the councilman told us that though he doesn’t consider Ashleigh to be a close friend, he has known her for “some years” now. But he said that they became acquainted with each other through their involvement with the Muzeo Museum & Cultural Center and Community Services Board, not Anaheim Beautiful.

Below is Faessel‘s reply:

I served as a member of the original MUZEO board with Betty Aiken and got to know her husband Wylie through that connection, I recall that Ashleigh chaired a MUZEO Fundraiser years ago when her mom and dad were still active in the organization.

My wife Susan served on the Anaheim Community Services Board along with Mrs. Ashleigh Aitken for a couple years in the later 2000’s (I cannot recall exactly) so certainly I got to meet her from time to time there.

While you mentioned her being a member of Anaheim Beautiful, I do not have any personal knowledge of that. Susan and I are very supportive of Anaheim Beautiful however I don’t know every member. She may have been a member.

To go to your main question, we know of each other and have for some years. We do not, nor ever have met socially (unless we happened to have attended the same event coincidentally.)

Therefore I would not describe our relationship as ‘close friends.’

The Anaheim Investigator made at least three attempts to contact Aitken and Berenice Ballinas, her chief of staff, requesting comment for this article. However, for some strange reason, the mayor, who claims to be open and transparent with everybody, declined to answer any of the questions we sent her and ignored our emails.

Newly Appointed Councilwoman Campos-Kurtz Admits She Has Had Close Ties to Faessel For Years

Norma Campos-Kurtz (left) with Jordan Brandman (right) at an Anaheim Beautiful luncheon in December 2017.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher


In the aftermath of the Anaheim City Council vote to appoint Norma Campos-Kurtz to the District 4 seat vacated by Avelino Valencia III last year, a number of partisan Democrats were struggling to figure out the reason why Councilman Stephen Faessel was seemingly “chosen” to nominate her during the final round of balloting.

One video that was circulated on various Facebook groups made an attempt to understand what transpired by carefully dissecting every single move the council made that night. But such superficial analysis always ends up becoming an exercise in futility especially if you don’t know anything about the context of the behavior which took place.

The Anaheim Investigator, however, knew there was a very simple explanation for all of this. And we really didn’t have to dig that deep to find it. Evidence shows that Campos-Kurtz and Faessel are friends. Regardless of what the councilman’s publicly-stated motives were for picking her, they’ve known each other at least since 2016.

The relationship between the two began in earnest shortly after Faessel was elected to his seat on the Anaheim City Council in 2016. At that time, Campos-Kurtz was district director for Tom Daly, a state Assemblyman whose area encompassed a large chunk of Anaheim. One of her tasks was to do outreach to the councilman.

Things began to blossom when Campos-Kurtz joined the Board of Directors of Anaheim Beautiful in 2017, a non-profit organization whose core membership appears to consist of upper-middle class homeowners, some of whom have had ties to other groups like Support our Anaheim Resort and the now-defunct Anaheim First.

Not only has Faessel been a strong supporter of Anaheim Beautiful, but his wife has been an active participant in their activities:”Susan supports … Anaheim Beautiful programs such as Green Ribbon Week, Neighborhood Clean Up, Memorial Tree and Holiday Lights Tour,” according to the Anaheim High School Alumni Association website.

There is no doubt Campos-Kurtz’s involvement with Anaheim Beautiful’s board has benefited them. For example, in two messages posted on Facebook and Twitter in 2019 and 2021, it appears she was instrumental in boosting political support for that non-profit’s activities, including a scholarship program and a holiday lights award ceremony.

In direct response to a question The Investigator emailed to Campos-Kurtz about her relationship with Faessel, she quite frankly admitted to us what we already suspected based on evidence gathered during our own probe: that she had been friends with the councilman for several years now, though mostly in an official capacity.

“I met the councilmember soon after he was first elected to council as a result of responsibilities while working for then Assemblymember Tom Daly,” she told us last Friday. “Over the years I’ve met up with the councilmember (and his wife) at several community events, organization luncheons/dinners, city meetings and events.”

For matter of record, The Investigator does not dispute that Campos-Kurtz is qualified to be a councilwoman. But decisions to appoint someone to a vacant seat aren’t made at a city council meeting alone. They are based on pre-existing relationships formed over years of interactions. Faessel may deny it, but that’s one reason why he nominated her.

Likely Front Runners Vying for District 4 City Council Seat Have Hidden Ties to Disney-Funded SOAR

Linda Newby (left) with Natalie Meeks (right) at a closed-door meeting of the Anaheim First Neighborhood Leadership Summit in July 2019.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

Norma Campos-Kurtz and Linda Newby, two candidates of whom The Anaheim Investigator believes are the likely front runners in the race to fill the District 4 city council seat vacated by Avelino Valencia III last year, have hidden ties to Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR), an entity mostly funded by The Walt Disney Company.

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.

Newby with Sidhu.

Campos-Kurtz, like Newby, has also given SOAR cash. For example, a Form 460 filed in 2020 reports that she made a $100 contribution in October. But another form filed a year earlier shows that Ken Kurtz, her husband, gave them about $200. Notes mention that his payment was made directly to Jill Kanzler, then executive director.

Campos-Kurtz with her husband.

Early in 2022, Campos-Kurtz was appointed to the SOAR Advisory Committee–a fact that she neglected to mention in the application she filed with the city seeking appointment to the District 4 council seat. Additionally, she said nothing about her brief stint with Anaheim First, which still lists her as a member on their website.

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, SOAR spent 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

Councilman Valencia Gave City-Owned Tickets Worth $3,280 to Campaign Backers, Top Democrats

Councilman Avelino Valencia III gave $3,280 worth of city-owned Angels tickets to close friends, campaign backers, and top Democrats in April.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

Before Councilman Avelino Valencia III was elected to his seat, he told a reporter from Anaheim Exclusivo what his main priority would be. “I would like the residents of Anaheim to know that I am dedicating the next four years of my life to improving the quality of life for our residents,” he said. “I will be selfless in those endeavors; I will put the residents’ needs first.”

But there is an old adage about politicians: watch what they do, not what they say. And evidence is mounting that there is a big difference between Valencia’s behavior as a councilman and his rhetoric as a candidate. Thanks to Gabriel San Roman, a former investigative journalist for the defunct-OC Weekly, we know as a fact that this happens to be the case.

In an article San Roman recently posted on his Slingshot blog, he observed that with the reopening of Angel Stadium and Honda Center due to relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, a once “dormant political patronage system” has sprung back to life “with Anaheim city council members able to dole out free tickets to their well-connected friends and political backers again.”

San Roman should know. In 2019, he looked at more than 1,539 ticket disclosure formsForm 802s as they are called–to see who received the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tickets the city gets each year from these venues through various agreements. His award-winning investigation exposed a system rife with cronyism and corruption.

In reviewing the latest filings for April, he discovered not much had changed. For example, Councilman Jordan Brandman, who is a notorious peddler of city-owned tickets to lobbyists, campaign contributors, and even his former employer, gave two Angels tickets worth $410 to a businessman who appears to have been one of his clients at a previous job.

Even Valencia has gotten tickets.

The most astonishing revelations, however, came from Valencia’s filings. Being a newcomer, one thinks he would have been a bit more circumspect in his actions. But San Roman reported that his Form 802s showed the councilman freely gave away tickets to close friends, trade union leaders who helped finance his campaign, and known Democratic Party operatives.

In response, The Anaheim Investigator launched its own investigation into this matter and carefully scrutinized all of the Form 802s Valencia filed in the month of April. The documents not only corroborate the initial claims San Roman made in his piece, but new information has been uncovered which reveals that what he reported was just the tip of the iceberg.

The Form 802s show Valencia gave tickets to ten people, eight of which could be positively identified. Of those eight, all are “well-connected friends and political backers” of the councilman. Five have close ties to unions that each made a $2,100 contribution to his city council campaign last year. Two are top Democratic Party operatives. And most don’t live in Anaheim.

Below is a list of persons of who benefited from his largess:

ERNESTO MEDRANO

Valencia gave Medrano two tickets valued at $410 for an Angels vs. White Sox game on April 1st.

Medrano is a resident of Anaheim, a member of the Public Utilities Board, and a Business Representative for the Los Angeles / Orange Counties Building & Construction Trades Council.

Form 460s filed by the “Valencia for City Council 2020” committee report that the Los Angeles / Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council PAC (ID# 822029) made a $2,100 contribution on August 19, 2020.

ROBERT RUIZ

Valencia gave Ruiz two tickets valued at $410 for an Angels vs. White Sox game on April 2nd.

Ruiz is a resident of Irvine, a member of the Orange County Fair and Event Center Board, and Secretary-Treasurer for the Laborers International Union of North America Local 652.

Form 460s filed by the “Valencia for City Council 2020” committee report that the Laborers International Union of North America Laborers Local 652 (ID# 72-151970) made a $2,100 contribution on June 29, 2020.

ERNESTO AMADO CONDE

Valencia gave Conde two tickets valued at $410 for an Angels vs. White Sox game on April 3rd.

Conde is a resident of Santa Ana, a retired sergeant with the Santa Ana Police Department, and is Director of Communications for the Santa Ana Police Officers Association. In 2018, the Voice of OC reported he has a cozy relationship with Gerry Serrano, the president of that association.

Form 460s filed by the “Valencia for City Council 2020” committee report that the Santa Ana Police Officers Association Independent Expenditure Committee (ID# 1255606) made a $2,100 contribution on August 21, 2020.

Serrano made a $750 contribution on September 22, 2020.

LUISANDRES PEREZ

Valencia gave Perez two tickets valued at $410 for an Angels vs. White Sox game on April 4th.

Perez is a resident of Anaheim, a member of the Planning Commission, and Political Director for UA Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 582. Not only was he previously employed as Political Director of the Orange County Democratic Party, but he currently serves on their Central Committee and is an alternate for State Assemblyman Tom Daly.

Form 460s filed by the “Valencia for City Council 2020” committee report that the UA Plumbers & Steamfitters Local Union No. 582 PAC (ID# 890440) made a $2,100 contribution on July 31, 2020.

Perez made a $250 contribution on May 22, 2020.

LUIS ALEMAN

Valencia gave Aleman two tickets valued at $410 for an Angels vs. White Sox game on April 5th.

Aleman is a resident of Santa Ana, Secretary of the Orange County Democratic Party, and President of the Latinx Young Democrats of Orange County.

JOSHUA LAFARGA

Valencia gave LaFarga two tickets valued at $410 for an Angels vs. Astros game on April 6th.

LaFarga is a resident of Long Beach, a member of that city’s Planning Commission, and Recording Secretary for the Laborers International Union of North America Local 1309.

Form 460s filed by the “Valencia for City Council 2020” committee report that the Laborers International Union of North America Local 1309 PAC (ID# 851621) made a $2,100 contribution on June 30, 2020.

AJAY MOHAN

Valencia gave Mohan two tickets valued at $410 for an Angels vs. Twins game on April 16th.

Mohan is a resident of Irvine, a member of that city’s Children, Youth and Families Advisory Committee, and Executive Director of the Orange County Democratic Party. He was previously employed as their Political Director.

JOHNATHAN HERNANDEZ

Valencia gave Hernandez two tickets valued at $410 for an Angels vs. Rangers game on April 19th.

Hernandez is a resident of Santa Ana and a member of the Santa Ana City Council.

Total value of tickets given: $3,280.

On all of the Form 802s that Valenica filed, he stated he gave away tickets for the purpose of “attracting or rewarding volunteer public service.” Maybe so. Perhaps he wanted to encourage charity work in Irvine, Santa Ana, and Long Beach. And it could be a coincidence half of the recipients of his tickets apparently helped steer large amounts of cash into his city council campaign.

But the evidence speaks for itself. The Form 802s make a mockery of Valencia‘s promise to “put the residents’ needs first.” That he decided to shower close friends, trade union leaders who helped finance his campaign, and top Democratic Party operatives–most of whom don’t live in Anaheim–with $3,280 worth of tickets demonstrate that his priorities lie elsewhere.

Indeed, The Investigator believes he 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, Tom Daly, his boss, is termed out in 2024. But to do that, he’ll need to build a base of support not only in Anaheim, but in Santa Ana. That’s where giving away free tickets comes in handy.

For matter of record, Valencia isn’t the only politician in this town who has taken advantage of the ticket system and exploited it for selfish political purposes. Sometime in the future, The Investigator plans to publish more in-depth articles like this one exposing how past and present council members, both Democrat and Republican alike, have done similar things.

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