Archive for the tag “Mike Lyster”

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 bosses 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 boss 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.

Mayor Might Have to Recuse Himself From Pot Decision Because Son is Registered to Vote at Father’s Estate


Rohan & Harry II

Rohan Sidhu (far left) watches his father, Harry Sidhu, being sworn in as mayor of Anaheim on Tuesday December 4, 2018.

By DUANE ROBERTS
Editor & Publisher

Rohan Sidhu, the 23-year old son of Mayor Harry Sidhu, lists his father’s four-acre estate in Anaheim Hills as being his primary residence, according to a copy of his most recent voter registration form The Anaheim Investigator obtained from the Orange County Registrar of Voters last week. The form in question, an affidavit filed on May 8, 2015 and signed under penalty of perjury by Rohan himself, states that “145 S. Vista Grande” is his “home address.” Documents in the possession of the Orange County Clerk-Recorder show this property is owned by Mayor Sidhu.

The fact Rohan still maintains his father’s home as his primary residence raises concerns about whether or not Mayor Sidhu can legally participate in any upcoming discussions or votes on the legalization of cannabis businesses within the city. As The Investigator previously reported, Rohan is a “pot entrepreneur.” Not only does he run a firm called RSSC LLC that offers “design and operational consulting for the legal cannabis industry,” but he boasts that he helped set up “OC’s largest Type 6 cannabis oil Extraction and Distillation facility” in the City of Costa Mesa in 2018.

Voter Registration Form -- Rohan Sidhu II

The Mayor Might Have to Recuse Himself From Pot Decision

The California Political Reform Act of 1974–the main state law which deals with issues pertaining to “conflict of interest”–makes it perfectly clear: Public officials are prohibited from making, participate in making, or using their official position to influence any government decision in which they have a financial interest. A public official has an interest in a decision if it is “reasonably foreseeable” the decision will have a “material financial effect” on one or more of their interests.

According to Regulation 18703.5, one such interest a public official has is in their “personal finances” and those of their immediate family. A government decision will have an effect on this interest if the decision will result in personal expenses, income, assets, or liabilities of the official or their immediate family increasing or decreasing. The law, however, defines “immediate family” as being the spouse and any dependent children–meaning children who are below 18-years of age.

But the issue here is not that Rohan is Mayor Sidhu’s son, but how any government decision the latter makes might affect his “personal finances.” The fact Rohan lists his father’s home as his primary residence suggests he lives there. Because he is a cannabis business consultant, he could profit from any decision his father makes to legalize them. As a result, Mayor Sidhu’s “personal finances” could be affected in that his son might be in a better position to help him defray the costs of living on his estate.

The Investigator Reaches Out to Lyster, Sidhu, and Mezzacappa

The Investigator contacted Mike Lyster, Chief Communications Officer for the City of Anaheim, and asked him about how City Attorney Robert Fabela might feel about this matter and if Mayor Sidhu would be required to recuse himself from any discussions or votes on the legalization of cannabis businesses. “Should this item come before the Council, we would expect Anaheim’s city attorney to offer any guidance as relevant and appropriate,” he replied.

The Investigator also sent emails to Mayor Sidhu and Annie Mezzaccapa, his Chief of Staff, asking them for confirmation that Rohan lives with the mayor on his four-acre estate; if he intends to release an “official statement” about his “son’s ties to cannabis businesses in the interest of full public disclosure,” and; if he will be “recusing himself” from “city council discussions or votes that address the issue of legalizing cannabis businesses.” So far, none of them have responded.

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? 

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