Archive for the tag “Matthew Cunningham”

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

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

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

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

Reliable sources have told The Investigator that Cunningham, along with several associates, attended the September board meeting and delivered a presentation about his new blog, OC Independent, to members of that body. In addition, they claim shortly after he finished speaking, Gerry Serrano, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, actively lobbied the board to write out a check to help fund it.

The Investigator first became aware of this matter back in December when it obtained emails exchanged between police officers stating the owner of the Anaheim Independent had gotten $10,000 from Serrano for his new blog and alleged it might be used as a platform to attack certain Santa Ana politicians. The Anaheim Independent is the previous name of the Anaheim Observer, an older blog that Cunningham still operates.

Excerpt from the board meeting minutes.

This newfound alliance between Cunningham and Serrano is yet another unexpected twist in The Investigator’s ongoing coverage of the embattled police union president of whom, at least from our perspective, has made what could be aptly described as a Faustian bargain with a political consultant who is sometimes at odds with–if not been completely opposed to–the goals of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association.

For example, on April 2, 2020, Cunningham made an urgent appeal to all of his Santa Ana friends on Facebook to vote “no” on the recall of Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias, a right-wing Republican the police union spent $341,000 to remove from her seat. Beneath his message was one of her anti-recall videos which not only portrayed Serrano as a greedy “union boss,” but characterized people like him as “bullies.”

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

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

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

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

Cunningham and Whitaker.

There is no evidence the OC Independent receives any direct funding from the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. But it is not a coincidence many political consultants with links to the Orange County Republican Party gravitate to this business advocacy group. This entity has always been an important hub of social networks for jobs because it is connected to many key players in industry and government.

For matter of record, The Investigator emailed several questions to Cunningham asking him about the $10,000 donation he received from the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, if he had conversations with Serrano or anybody else about the OC Independent running “negative articles about certain Santa Ana politicians,” and if he plans to approach other public employee unions for money to help fund this blog.

In response to our inquiry, Cunningham wrote the following:

OC Independent, like other independent news organizations, has a broad base of supporters to pursue its mission. We will not sell, share or trade our donors’ names or personal information with any other entity, nor send mailings to our donors on behalf of other organizations to respect donor privacy. As editor, I ensure our news stories are researched thoroughly, all subjects and stakeholders have an opportunity to comment, and then present the news to the public.

The Investigator also made three attempts to contact Serrano about this matter, emailing him questions quite similar to those we posed to Cunningham. But despite giving him an ample amount of time to issue a response, the police union president so far has not bothered replying to any of our messages. However, if we do eventually hear from him, we will most assuredly let our readers know.

Below is copy of the draft minutes of the September 23, 2021 board meeting of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association.

Wife of Anaheim Blog Publisher is Involved in Anaheim First, Senior VP of Chamber of Commerce

Matthew and Laura Cunningham are greeted as they arrive at Mayor Harry Sidhu’s “State of the City” address at the City National Grove last March

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

For several months now, Matthew Cunningham, the publisher of the Anaheim Blog, a website that covers city politics from a right-wing perspective, has shamelessly promoted Anaheim First, a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, as being a “grass-roots community organization.”

In one article after another, Cunningham has lauded it as a being a “non-political” group made up of “residents of all ages, from every walk of life and every part of the city” who got together “to develop a resident-driven plan for guiding city investment in their neighborhoods,” blasting critics who call it a “front” for big business.

But in all of the articles he has penned about Anaheim First so far, he has neglected to mention two crucial details. First, his wife, Laura Cunningham, has played a behind-the-scenes role in organizing “town hall forums” for this non-profit. And second, she has been Senior Vice President of the Anaheim Chamber at least since July.

This image remains the exclusive copyright property of the creator. No rights are granted unless written contracts are in place.

Laura Cunningham oversees a breakout group at the Anaheim First Neighborhood Leadership Summit on July 10th.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Laura’s involvement with Anaheim First isn’t exactly a secret. Her work for this group was first exposed by Gabriel San Roman, an investigative journalist for the now-defunct OC Weekly. In an article San Roman wrote back in September, he made the following observations while attending their first “town hall forum” in West Anaheim:

From the back of the room, Laura Cunningham directed [Karen] Gulley to wrap up her presentation so that the town hall could turn to breakout groups. She’s the wife of Anaheim Blog’s Matt Cunningham who, unsurprisingly, wrote uncritically of the event while finding an opportunity to hammer away at Unite Here Local 11 union members for crashing the discussion session. Todd Ament, Anaheim Chamber of Commerce president and Anaheim First board member, confirmed to the Weekly that Laura worked for the Chamber, but not Anaheim First. The distinction didn’t seem to matter much during the town hall–or after. Laura helped clean up the gym to close out the night.

Documents in the possession of the Anaheim Investigator corroborate his findings. One memorandum, typed up by Deputy City Manager Greg Garcia, recorded a meeting that took place at city hall on Friday, August 9th where city staff met with consultants involved in the “Anaheim First Community Assessment.”

“This is a meeting to discuss the next steps of the group and our role,” wrote Garcia. “PlaceWorks [a consulting firm hired by Anaheim First] will be a part of the meeting to talk us through their plan.” Attendees included representatives from the Anaheim Chamber: Todd Ament, President and CEO, and Laura, who was listed as a contact.

Emails show that Laura was quietly monitoring communications between Anaheim First, it’s consultants, and the City of Anaheim about arrangements being made to use public facilities for their “town hall forums.” Her email address “laura@anaheimchamber.org” is clearly visible on correspondence with city staff.

In another email obtained by the Investigator, Mike Lyster, Chief Communications Officer for the City of Anaheim, was contacted by Laura on August 21st about setting up a meeting with him on an unrelated matter. She signed off using the title “Senior Vice President.” Attached to it was the logo of the Anaheim Chamber.

Email-Cunningham Lyster

Despite the fact Laura has been Senior Vice President for several months now, the Anaheim Chamber has failed to update the staff directory on its website and list her as an employee. Her name, however, has begun to pop up elsewhere, such as on page 12 of the October issue of “Business Advocate,” their glossy newsletter.

Shilling for the Anaheim Chamber

But most curiously, Matthew Cunningham has said nary a word about Laura’s work with Anaheim First. Of course, to acknowledge this would tear to shreds the narrative he has woven about it being a “grass-roots community organization.” Since when do ordinary people recruit business executives to set up their neighborhood meetings?

Furthermore, his wife’s relationship with the Anaheim Chamber raises questions as to how the Anaheim Blog reports the news. For example, does the favorable coverage that Cunningham offers Anaheim First reflect his genuine love and affection for that group? Or is he really doing it because he wants to help his wife succeed at her job?

It should be noted that Cunningham is a political consultant. He runs a public relations firm called Pacific Strategies. On his LinkedIn page, a social media website for business professionals, he makes it no secret one of his “present past clients” has been the Anaheim Chamber. Even Ament himself has admitted this.

Cunningham has long since denied his blog is being paid for by the Anaheim Chamber. But does it really matter? Both he and his wife have received thousands of dollars of income from them over the years. Doesn’t that serve as a strong enough disincentive for him to post articles on his blog that they might not like? 

ACLU-Backed ‘Anti-Police Activist’ Group Got Tickets Worth $2,108 From Anaheim Mayor, Councilmen

Smith & Faessel

Theresa Smith, the “anti-police activist” founder of LEAN, with Stephen Faessel, an Anaheim City Councilman, who was elected to his seat with $17,389 worth of support from the Anaheim Police Association.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

On Thursday, June 29, 2017, an article entitled, “Councilman Moreno Honored By Anaheim Police Critics,” was posted on the Anaheim Blog, a right-wing website run by Matthew Cunningham, a well-connected public relations consultant, by a person who uses the pseudonym, Anaheim Insider.

Insider, a regular contributor to that blog, reported about a special event which took place earlier that week where Anaheim City Councilman Jose Moreno, who represents the Third District, received an award from a group characterized as being started by “anti-police activists.”

“This past weekend,” Insider wrote, “Moreno was awarded the Public Service Award by the Law Enforcement Accountability Network, or LEAN“:

LEAN was started by local anti-police activists who frequent Anaheim City Council meetings to criticize the police in the harshest, over-the-top terms. It is ‘fiscally sponsored’ by the ACLU. Despite the group’s soft-pedaled official ‘we want to improve policing’ rhetoric, the people behind it view the police as violent, anti-Latino trigger-happy thugs and are in the bait of denouncing officer-involved shootings as ‘murders.’

In an attempt to prove his point, Insider zeroed in on comments one attendee made on her Facebook page, claiming she “helped organize the protest” in the Palais neighborhood “that predictably degenerated into a riot, leading to ‘protesters’ vandalizing the home of an elderly couple of breaking car windows.”

“This is the spirit of LEAN supporters, and they’ve let us know that Jose F. Moreno is their kind of councilmember,” Insider said.

But a two-month investigation by the Anaheim Investigator has uncovered dozens of photographs, emails, and other evidence, some of it obtained from the City of Anaheim through California Public Records Act requests, suggesting Insider’s account of this event was not only inaccurate, but misleading. Contrary to Insider’s assertion that “LEAN supporters” were people who “view the police as violent, anti-Latino trigger-happy thugs,” photos show that several prominent Anaheim politicians and businessmen, all of whom have close ties to law enforcement, attended this function.

The Investigator has learned the aforementioned event Insider made reference to was a June 25th “Garden Party Fundraiser” for LEAN, a non-profit organization founded by Theresa Smith, whose son, Caesar Cruz, was shot to death by Anaheim Police in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in 2009.

A copy of an email invitation dated Monday, June 19, 2017 sent out by LEAN to Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait states the venue for this function was the Villa Park home of Belinda Escobosa-Helzer, former Director for the Orange County office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Smith & Moreno

Smith with Councilman Moreno.

Photos clearly show Moreno was present, but he wasn’t the only politician there. Another attendee was Stephen Faessel, an Anaheim City Councilman who was elected to his Fifth District seat in 2016 with $15,488.80 worth of support from the Anaheim Police Officer’s Association Independent Expenditure Committee. A careful review of California Form 460 paperwork the “Faessel for City Council 2016” committee filed with the City Clerk shows the Anaheim Police Association PAC also gave his campaign $1,900 in cash.

Other photos show Michael Gennaco, a former trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, who runs the OIR Group, a Playa Del Rey law firm that has a $125,000 a year contract with the City of Anaheim to provide auditing services for the Anaheim Police Department.

Smith & Gennaco

Smith with Michael Gennaco.

One notable person that attended was William Taormina, a wealthy real estate developer, who serves on the advisory board of Anaheim Police Chief Raul Quezada. He is also Chairman Emeritus of the Anaheim Community Foundation, a non-profit which has managed tens of thousands of dollars in funds for Kash for K-9’s, Cops 4 Kids, and other programs supported by the Anaheim Police Department.

The Investigator has confirmed that Taormina wrote out a $1,000 check to LEAN at their June 25th fundraiser–a huge amount of money, especially since James Gilliam, Deputy Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California, boasted on Facebook: “We helped [Smith] raise almost $4,000 this afternoon.”

Bill Taormina behind Smith in Plaid Shirt

William Taormina (in the plaid shirt) sitting behind Smith.

But the biggest donor to LEAN, however, was not Taormina: it was the City of Anaheim. Emails, letters, and documents the Investigator obtained under Public Records Act requests show that Mayor Tait and Councilmen Faessel and Moreno collectively donated sports tickets worth $2,108. According to a California Form 802, “Agency Report of Ceremonial Role Events and Ticket/Pass Distributions,” Tait gave LEAN four “suite” tickets at Angels Stadium for a baseball game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Oakland Athletics. The tickets were valued at $225 each, or $900 total. Another Form 802 shows Moreno also gave LEAN four “suite” tickets at Angels Stadium also worth $900, but for a different game. As for Faessel, his contribution was much smaller, but still significant. A Form 802 reports he donated four “suite” tickets at the Honda Center for a “P&G Gymnastics Championship,” valued at $77 each, or $308 total, a fact later verified via email by Crystal Norman, his former Senior Policy Aide.

The Investigator has learned all of the sports tickets LEAN received from the Mayor and the Councilmen were put up for “silent auction” during the fundraiser. But the winning bidders didn’t receive the actual tickets that day. Instead, they were given a form letter printed on official City of Anaheim stationery, each signed by Tait, Faessal, or Moreno, that entitled the bearer to contact the Office of the Mayor and City Council to make arrangements to pick up the tickets they won. “Enjoy and thank you for supporting LEAN,” all of them said.

A copy of Tait’s letter is below:

Tait Letter re LEAN

All together, the Investigator calculates that Tait, Faessal, Moreno, and Taormina, made donations to LEAN worth a whopping $3,108. Of the estimated 50 people in attendance at the June 25th “Garden Party Fundraiser,” nobody contributed as much to the financial success of this benefit as did these four men.

But all of this begs the following question: Why are members of Anaheim’s political and business elite, all of whom have close ties to law enforcement, showering LEAN with gifts and money?

Stay tuned …

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