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.
For example, we discovered the mayor had some sort of link to Anaheim Beautiful, a non-profit organization that Faessel and his wife have championed. Multiple photographs The Investigator reviewed show Aitken attended a couple of events this group held at various venues, sometimes while the councilman’s wife was present.
In one photo of a September 2018 luncheon, Aitken can be seen seated at a table directly across from Campos-Kurtz, a who not only joined the Board of Directors of Anaheim Beautiful the previous year, but also maintained a tight relationship with Faessel through her job as district director for state Assemblyman Tom Daly.
Campos-Kurtz (back to camera) with Aitken in 2018.
In an attempt to learn more, The Investigator sent an email to Faessel asking him about his interactions with Aitken, including what knowledge he had about her with respect to Anaheim Beautiful, especially since evidence in our possession suggested that she had been affiliated with this non-profit for at least six years.
In response, the councilman told us that though he doesn’t consider Ashleigh to be a close friend, he has known her for “some years” now. But he said that they became acquainted with each other through their involvement with the Muzeo Museum&Cultural Center and Community Services Board, not Anaheim Beautiful.
Below is Faessel‘s reply:
I served as a member of the original MUZEO board with Betty Aiken and got to know her husband Wylie through that connection, I recall that Ashleigh chaired a MUZEO Fundraiser years ago when her mom and dad were still active in the organization.
My wife Susan served on the Anaheim Community Services Board along with Mrs. Ashleigh Aitken for a couple years in the later 2000’s (I cannot recall exactly) so certainly I got to meet her from time to time there.
While you mentioned her being a member of Anaheim Beautiful, I do not have any personal knowledge of that. Susan and I are very supportive of Anaheim Beautiful however I don’t know every member. She may have been a member.
To go to your main question, we know of each other and have for some years. We do not, nor ever have met socially (unless we happened to have attended the same event coincidentally.)
Therefore I would not describe our relationship as ‘close friends.’
The Anaheim Investigator made at least three attempts to contact Aitken and Berenice Ballinas, her chief of staff, requesting comment for this article. However, for some strange reason, the mayor, who claims to be open and transparent with everybody, declined to answer any of the questions we sent her and ignored our emails.
Norma Campos-Kurtz (left) with Jordan Brandman (right) at an Anaheim Beautiful luncheon in December 2017.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
In the aftermath of the AnaheimCity Council vote to appointNorma Campos-Kurtz to the District 4 seat vacated by Avelino Valencia III last year, a number of partisan Democrats were struggling to figure out the reason why Councilman Stephen Faessel was seemingly “chosen” to nominate her during the final round of balloting.
One video that was circulated on various Facebook groups made an attempt to understand what transpired by carefully dissecting every single move the council made that night. But such superficial analysis always ends up becoming an exercise in futility especially if you don’t know anything about the context of the behavior which took place.
The Anaheim Investigator, however, knew there was a very simple explanation for all of this. And we really didn’t have to dig that deep to find it. Evidence shows that Campos-Kurtz and Faessel are friends. Regardless of what the councilman’s publicly-stated motives were for picking her, they’ve known each other at least since 2016.
The relationship between the two began in earnest shortly after Faessel was elected to his seat on the Anaheim City Council in 2016. At that time, Campos-Kurtz was district director for Tom Daly, a state Assemblyman whose area encompassed a large chunk of Anaheim. One of her tasks was to do outreach to the councilman.
Things began to blossom when Campos-Kurtz joined the Board of Directors of Anaheim Beautiful in 2017, a non-profit organization whose core membership appears to consist of upper-middle class homeowners, some of whom have had ties to other groups like Support our Anaheim Resort and the now-defunct Anaheim First.
Not only has Faessel been a strong supporter of Anaheim Beautiful, but his wife has been an active participant in their activities:”Susan supports … Anaheim Beautiful programs such as Green Ribbon Week, Neighborhood Clean Up, Memorial Tree and Holiday Lights Tour,” according to the Anaheim High School Alumni Association website.
There is no doubt Campos-Kurtz’s involvement with Anaheim Beautiful’s board has benefited them. For example, in two messages posted on Facebook and Twitter in 2019 and 2021, it appears she was instrumental in boosting political support for that non-profit’s activities, including a scholarship program and a holiday lights award ceremony.
In direct response to a question The Investigator emailed to Campos-Kurtz about her relationship with Faessel, she quite frankly admitted to us what we already suspected based on evidence gathered during our own probe: that she had been friends with the councilman for several years now, though mostly in an official capacity.
“I met the councilmember soon after he was first elected to council as a result of responsibilities while working for then Assemblymember Tom Daly,” she told us last Friday. “Over the years I’ve met up with the councilmember (and his wife) at several community events, organization luncheons/dinners, city meetings and events.”
For matter of record, The Investigator does not dispute that Campos-Kurtz is qualified to be a councilwoman. But decisions to appoint someone to a vacant seat aren’t made at a city council meeting alone. They are based on pre-existing relationships formed over years of interactions. Faessel may deny it, but that’s one reason why he nominated her.
Evidence reviewed by The Investigator–including campaign finance documents, numerous photographs, and archived websites–not only show that both women have contributed money to SOAR’s political action committee through various fundraisers, but that one of them was appointed to its separate advisory board in 2022.
Newby, a longtime resident of Anaheim, is the owner of Gallery Travel, a “full-service travel agency.” Between 2013 and 2014, she served on the board of directors of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and has been active in other groups formed by that body, such as Anaheim First, which was backed by former Mayor Harry Sidhu.
Multiple photographs in the possession of The Investigator show Newby has participated in SOAR fundraisers on and off since 2014. Form 460s filed by SOAR with the City Clerk’s office report she gave at least $100 to them on at least four different occasions (the last time being August 26, 2021), but did so under the name of her business.
That Campos-Kurtz has a close relationship with SOAR is of no surprise. Between 2014 and 2021, she worked for Democratic State Assemblyman Tom Daly, who was one of the earliest champions of this Disney-funded entity. Not only do Form 460s show that Daly got funds from them, but he bragged about their endorsement in 2012.
In 2020, SOARspent a whopping $405,710–the bulk of which came from The Walt Disney Company–to help Valencia get elected to his District 4 city council seat. It’s not a coincidence that at the time this was happening, he was working as a field representative for Daly and Campos-Kurtz just so happened to be his boss.
Screenshot from SOAR’s website.
Despite the fact eleven other people have filed applications seeking appointment to the District 4 city council seat, The Investigator believes that none of them ever stood a chance of being considered for this position. From our perspective, the decision as to who will replace Valencia had already been made weeks ago.
However, there appears to be no clear consensus on the Anaheim City Council right now as to whether they will pick Campos-Kurtz or Newby. There is a possibility the vote could end up deadlocked 3-3 for both. Regardless of what the case will be, the odds a candidate tied to SOAR will be chosen to fill this seat are quite high.
The job offer was set into motion shortly after Valencia sent out an email to James Vanderpool, the city manager, on Monday, July 26, 2021, expressing that he “would like to hire Dr. Tina Arias Miller as a Senior Policy Aide…. Dr. Miller will be working about 6-7 hours a week. Her hourly compensation will be $31.00 an hour.”
Valencia’s email to the city manager.
Documents The Investigator acquired from the City of Anaheim show that Miller worked for Valencia less than a year. A human resources action report notes she was hired on August 16, 2021. And her last day on the job was March 31, 2022, according to the final Form 700 Statement of Economic Interests that she filed.
However, it’s unclear what Miller did for the councilman that warranted her higher pay grade. For example, The Investigator carefully reviewed his calendar during the several months he employed her and though she was sent to a few city meetings, she appears to have spent most of her time doing tasks that lesser-paid council aides do.
But most importantly, Valencia took steps to ensure the public never knew he had hired her. At no time did he ever list Miller’s name on his homepage on the city website. And despite the fact she had an official email address, she was apparently told not to use it to send messages, enabling her to elude detection from public records act requests.
Hari S. Lal, a candidate running for Anaheim City Council in District 6, has alleged that a blogger threatened to kill him.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
In a statement sent last month to The Anaheim Investigator by Hari S. Lal, a candidate running for Anaheim City Council in District 6, he alleged that Matt Cunningham, a political consultant who runs the Anaheim Observer, a right-wing news blog, not only made a “direct threat to my life,” but took responsibility for “hundreds” of his campaign signs “being destroyed, stolen, or having swastikas painted on them,” even causing his mailbox to be vandalized. “It is now a matter for the Anaheim Police,” he told us.
However, The Investigator has subsequently learned Lal has never bothered to report any of these purported criminal acts–some of which can be prosecuted as felonies under state law–to the Anaheim Police Department for further investigation. Additionally, the candidate has repeatedly ignored every request we have made asking that he provide us with evidence that some of these crimes actually occurred, such as show us photographs taken of those campaign signs he claimed were defaced by swastikas.
The whole brouhaha between Lal and Cunningham erupted on September 13th when the latter published an article which accurately reported the Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector’s website showed the candidate then-owed $146,337.93 in delinquent property taxes on his Anaheim Hills mansion. In response, Lal threatened to sue the blogger demanding he “immediately withdraw your false and misleading articles regarding myself with respect to the property tax in the amount of $140,000.”
Lal’s mansion in Anaheim Hills.
So far, no lawsuit has been filed. And an updated version of the article is still online. But in the statement Lal sent, he claims Cunningham “doxxed” him in the first one that was posted, revealing “personal details” about his life which “went far beyond” what is considered public record. “This appeared to be a malicious attempt to threaten my family and incite vandalism towards my property,” he told us. “It succeeded: my mailbox was spray painted that night. I hold Mr. Cunningham directly accountable for this.”
Furthermore, Lal also alleged the blogger threatened to kill him, and took credit for trashing his signs: “I was called on my personal cell phone that evening by a blocked number; the caller identified himself as ‘Cunningham, of course!’ He mocked me and–in a reference to hundreds of my campaign signs in Anaheim Hills being destroyed, stolen, or having swastikas painted on them–shouted: ‘We have flattened your signs and we will flatten you!’ This was a direct threat to my life! It is now a matter for the Anaheim Police.”
However, Lal never bothered to report any of these purported criminal acts to the Anaheim Police for further investigation. Sergeant Shane Carringer, public information officer for the department, told The Investigator via email on October 17th they have “confirmed there are no records showing Lal contacted APD.” And the candidate has repeatedly ignored our requests to provide us with evidence some of these crimes actually occurred, such as show us photographs taken of campaign signs defaced by swastikas.
Reacting to Lal’s allegations, Cunningham had this to say: “It is true I unpublished the article as a courtesy to Mr. Lal while I further investigated his claims and explanations, which turned out to be false. I then re-published an expanded version with additional information. The rest of his allegations about me are false–especially his absurd claim that I made a threatening phone call to him. I have never spoken to Hari Lal–I do not even have his cell phone number. All my communication with him was via e-mail.”
There are no records Lal contacted Anaheim Police.
And these aren’t the only bizarre claims Lal has made. In his statement, the candidate says the reason why he didn’t pay $146,337.93 in delinquent property taxes was because he applied for a “reassessment” under Proposition 60–which would enable him to transfer value from a previous home he owned to his current one. “For reasons unknown to me, the application was not granted, and the case was set aside to be adjudicated,” he told us. “This adjudication never occurred, due in part to COVID-19.”
But The Investigator filed a public records act request with the Orange County Assessor Department–the only agency through which Lal could apply for a “reassessment”–asking they release all “emails, letters, faxes, correspondence, petitions, and other documents, legal or otherwise, which deal with, address, and/or pertain to any attempts by Hari S. Lal, through various provisions of Proposition 60 or Proposition 90, to transfer the base year value of his last primary residence to the residence he currently owns.”
In reply, the Orange County Assessor sent a letter back stating the “assessor had no responsive records.” Joanne Kim, a quality assurance manager for the department, told The Investigator via phone and email last month that Lal never applied for any “reassessments” of his Anaheim Hills mansion under provisions of Proposition 60, Proposition 90, or Proposition 19. In fact, Kim said that they have no records the candidate had ever contacted them. “We don’t have anything from him,” she reiterated.
In his statement, Lal also claims that his “case is now pending appeal for a declaratory relief regarding my eligibility for Prop 60/90,” suggesting this issue is perhaps being litigated in court. But for some reason, the candidate–who himself is a lawyer by trade–wouldn’t tell The Investigator what venue he was pursuing this matter in, who the presiding judicial officer is, and when the next hearing date will be. He repeatedly ignored all of our requests to provide us with any information about it.
There are no records Lal contacted the Assessor.
During our month-long inquiry intothis affair, The Investigator couldn’t find any proof that would support any of Lal’s claims. The fact the candidate himself was uncooperative and refused to provide us with evidence wasn’t especially helpful. Nevertheless, we did find one thing that he was being quite truthful about: somebody has been taking down his campaign signs in Anaheim Hills. And not only do we know the name of the “culprit,” but we also know the name of their employer.
In one of the public records act requests we filed with the City of Anaheim, a document was released to us by the Planning & Building Department which reported that a part-time clerk was dispatched to remove one of Lal’s campaign signs that had been illegally posted on city property near 8225E. Santa Ana Canyon Roadin Anaheim Hills. They apparently retrieved it sometime before noon on Tuesday, September 27th because by 11:50 a.m. the case file on this matter had been closed.
Below is the statement sent last month to The Anaheim Investigator by Hari S. Lal, a candidate running for Anaheim City Council in District 6.
Robert Fabela, City Attorney for the City of Anaheim, speaking at a meeting of the Anaheim City Council earlier this year.
By DUANE ROBERTS Editor & Publisher
In a highly unusual chain of emails obtained from the City of Anaheim last year through the public records act, City Attorney Robert Fabela appears to have advised Councilman Avelino Valencia III to “lie” to The Anaheim Investigator about the underlying reasons why he handed out several thousand dollars worth of city-owned Angels baseball tickets to his campaign backers–something of which the city attorney has emphatically denied.
The emails in question, which were also shared with City Clerk Theresa Bass and Chief Communications OfficerMike Lyster, offers a rare glimpse into a system that holds nobody accountable for misusing any of the hundreds of tickets the city gets each year from Angel Stadium and Honda Center, allowing politicians like Valencia to give them away like candy to big donors, personal friends, and union leaders who helped get him elected.
In an attempt to learn more about the “good work” these people did, The Investigator sent Valencia an email on June 17th which listed the names of 22 individuals that public records showed were the recipients of his ticket largess between the months of April and May. “In the interest of full public disclosure, [we’re] requesting information as to the type of ‘volunteer public service’ each of the above persons are engaged in,” we wrote.
It wasn’t until in mid-July The Investigator learned Valencia was concerned about our inquiry into the reasons why he gave out tickets. A chain of emails obtained through the public records act showed that shortly after receiving our June 17th message, the councilman forwarded it to Fabela and Bass, asking them for help. “Please see the below email I received,” he said. “I would appreciate your advise [sic] and direction regarding the request.”
Within a half hour, Fabela issued a reply. The city attorney told Valencia he had “no obligation to respond” to The Investigator because it was “an ask for a verbal response.” Furthermore, he stated “policy” allows the councilman to “provide tickets not only for past service, but also to ‘attract’ service.” And finally, Fabela said if he does choose to respond, that this is “more of a public relations issue,” urging him to contact Lyster “to help him with … strategy.”
Forty minutes later, Bass followed up with an email backing one of Fabela’s points. “For reference, I am attaching a copy of our Ticket Policy — Section 5.0 states the conditions by which tickets may be distributed,” the city clerk told Valencia. “As noted by Rob, the policy allows for ‘attracting or rewarding volunteer public service’ which was noted on your Form 802, meeting the requirements of the policy and FPPC Form 802.”
Fabela’s email to Valencia.
The chain of emails The Investigator discovered–especially the one sent out by Fabela–offers us a behind-the-scenes look into why the ticket system has been constantly plagued with cronyism and corruption. Though part of problem lies with bad policies that have allowed council members to hijack it for political purposes, evidence we have unearthed seems to hint an overly compliant city bureaucracy might also be enabling this unethical behavior.
But it is what Fabela instructed him to do that is of great significance. Besides the fact he told Valencia that he could ignore The Investigator–and thus stonewall our inquiry–it appears he advised him to “lie” about the reason why he handed out those tickets, reminding the councilman that “policy” also allows him to “provide tickets … to ‘attract’ service”–a flimsy pretext which doesn’t require recipients to do any “volunteer public service.”
To better understand the context of Fabela’s advice, it was given after the councilmanhad already handed out tickets to 22 individuals–most of them campaign backers–between the months of April and May. And by reminding Valencia that “policy” also allows him to “provide tickets … to ‘attract’ service,” the city attorney hinted a different pretext could be used to justify what he did, thus “lie” about his reasons for distributing them.
What is most revealing about Fabela’s email is he never advised Valencia to truthfully answer The Investigator’s questions. Given that taxpayers own these tickets, one would think the city attorney would zealously guard their interests. Not so. Everything he wrote, whether intentional or not, encouraged the councilman to be deceptive. Even his suggestion Lyster be contacted to formulate a response hinted it be a spun narrative.
The emailthat Bass sent out, however, was more straightforward. The city clerk was correct when she told Valencia “policy allows for ‘attracting or rewarding volunteer public service’ which was noted on your Form 802, meeting the requirements of the policy and FPPC Form 802.” There is nothing on ticket disclosure forms which require council members to explain why they gave them away. But they do have to identify a “public purpose.”
A Form 802 that Valencia filed in April 2021.
It is not a strange coincidence that on every Form 802Valencia filed for each big donor, personal friend, and union leader that he gave city-owned Angels baseball tickets to, he listed “attracting or rewarding volunteer public service” as the “public purpose.” That’s because this “public purpose,” as it is currently written, contains a major loophole which enables council members to hand out tickets to anybody on a flimsy pretext.
This loophole was first noticed by Gabriel San Roman, a former investigative journalist for the defunct-OC Weekly. While reviewing more than 1,539 ticket disclosure forms in 2019, he discovered a common pattern among council members who were abusing the system for their own selfish motives: they noted on each Form 802 they filed that they gave away tickets for the “public purpose” of “attracting or rewarding volunteer public service.”
Upon further scrutiny, San Roman learned this “public purpose” allowed council members to disburse tickets for two entirely different reasons: they can give them to “reward” people for “volunteer public service” they have done; or give them to “attract” people to do “volunteer public service” in the future. Since council members aren’t obligated to explain why they gave them away, nobody ever knows which of these two they chose.
The ambiguous nature of this “public purpose” has created a loophole which council members have been all too eager to exploit: if tickets can be given away to “attract” people to do “volunteer public service” in the future, then the recipient doesn’t have to do anything to earn them. Over the years, this flimsy pretext has paved the way for doling them out to practically anybody–big donors, lobbyists, political operatives–you name it.
OC Weekly cover story on August 9, 2019.
For matter of record, The Investigator did reach out to Fabela seeking his comment for this article. We asked the city attorney point blank if in the advice he gave to Valencia that he was “encouraging him to be deceptive—if not ‘lie’ to us—should he have chosen to respond” to our inquiry requesting he provide “additional information about his reasons for handing out tickets to 22 people during the months of April and May 2021”
“The answer to your question is ‘no’ as your inquiry is based on a misreading of both the email and the City ticket policy,” said Fabela. “The question to the Council member incorrectly assumed that past public service is the only criteria allowed under the City’s ticket policy, and my email to the Council member corrects that and reflects what City policy actually states. I do not see how that could be interpreted as encouraging anyone to ‘lie.'”
Regardless of what the city attorney’s intent was, it’s quite evident that Valencia felt empowered by what he said to continue distributing tickets to campaign backers without fear of any repercussions. Though the councilman has been handing more of them out to local residents and non-profit groups, he still doles tickets to cronies who not only have helped get him elected to public office in the past, but will probably do so in the future.
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.]
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