California & USA

Column: Corruption scandal demonstrates that there are no angels in Anaheim politics

I arrived early to Tuesday’s Anaheim City Council meeting, expecting to find an overflow crowd wielding metaphorical pitchforks and torches. Evidently, so did the powers that be.

Audio speakers squealed outside City Hall for anyone who arrived late. Police officers stood at attention or sauntered around, some in bulletproof vests.

It was the first council meeting since explosive court filings alleged that my hometown is living up to the nickname my friends and I have long called it as a joke: Anacrime.

On Monday, an FBI affidavit filed in Orange County Superior Court revealed Mayor Harry Sidhu was under federal investigation for public corruption over his role in the city’s attempted sale of Angel Stadium and its parking lots to Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno. The FBI alleges that Sidhu leaked insider information to the Angels, deleted evidence of his doings, and attempted to obstruct an Orange County Grand Jury investigation into the affair.

The following day, the FBI filed a separate criminal complaint alleging Todd Ament, the former president and CEO of the powerful Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, defrauded a cannabis company that wanted to do business in the city, laundered money meant for the chamber through a public relations firm, then used the firm to trick a financial lender into financing the mortgage on Ament’s multimillion dollar home in Big Bear.

The people who showed up at Anaheim City Hall to talk about the brewing scandal rained down righteous thunder as they called for the resignation of Sidhu. But he wasn’t there. Even the nameplate usually affixed to his spot on the dais was MIA.

Resident Mark Richard Daniels said it was the worst moment for Anaheim since the Ku Klux Klan took over the City Council back in the 1920s. Vern Nelson, publisher of the irascible Orange Juice Blog, sang a parody of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” with “Harry Sidhu” swapped for the final two words of the title. Jeanine Robbins, member of a homeless advocacy group that unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit to stop the Angel Stadium sale, could barely contain her glee.

“You liars, cheats, and thieves sitting up there have mocked us, snickered at us, called us names and have called us liars,” she said. “Well, look where we are now.”

The headlines were bad enough; the details in the court filings were dirty.

In wiretapped conversations cited in the documents, Ament discussed with an unnamed political consultant whether to invite newly elected councilmembers in 2020 to become “family members” of the “cabal” that runs Anaheim and that already included at least three other elected officials. Ament then turned snitch and wore a wire to capture Sidhu saying the Angels needed to donate a “minimum of a million dollars to come up with my election” in exchange for his help pushing through the Angel Stadium sale.

I could go on and on.

The whole thing sounds like a B-grade Martin Scorsese gangster flick — I forgot the part where Ament allegedly helped Sidhu illegally register a yellow helicopter in Arizona. More allegations and charges are expected in the coming weeks.

I don’t think the FBI goes around alleging in federal court that “the City of Anaheim was tightly controlled by a small cadre of individuals” — and then just charges two people, you know?

If everything sticks, this civic scandal could make the 2010 Bell fiasco — which saw four councilmembers, two city administrators, and the mayor convicted on corruption charges — look as small-fry as high school ASB. Bell is a tiny city that doesn’t have two professional sports teams, a massive convention center and a little ol’ place called Disneyland. But whatever happens, the two cases definitely, sadly share something in common:

Few people were paying attention when all the malfeasance was happening.

Fans stand for the national anthem before the Angels home opener at Angel Stadium.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Most of the seats during the Anaheim council meeting I attended did end up getting filled — but it was the usual assortment of lobbyists, gadflies, local activists, and happy, mysterious men in sharp suits. More people showed up to celebrate Anaheim designating their houses as historic structures than to decry Sidhu’s actions.

Those who did broach the scandal brought their righteous anger A-game. But they were the same mostly white, mostly middle-aged activists who have shown up to council meetings for the 20 years I’ve reported on Anaheim.

Where was everyone else?

This apathy made a situation where a chosen few could snake their way into so much influence not just possible, but inevitable. Like Bell, Anaheim is a working-class city whose residents have more pressing concerns than civics. The 2020 U.S. census estimated whites make up just 24% of the population, with Latinos 53%. Nearly 60% of Anaheimers speak a language other than English at home. It’s a recipe for exploitation that corporations have taken advantage of for decades.

The Angels stadium deal — and let’s be clear, there have been no allegations of wrongdoing by the team itself — is getting the most attention right now, but the most notorious example remains Disney. It doesn’t figure into any of the current federal allegations, but that hasn’t stopped the Mouse from long getting its way in Anaheim. Former company officials have long boasted how they would take “the city fathers” on trips back in the 1960s and 1970s to play golf and get drunk. When it realized that wasn’t particularly ethical, Disney instead used millions of dollars in campaign donations to create councils to their liking.

The result has been sweetheart deal after sweetheart deal. Like the one that had Anaheim construct one of the world’s biggest parking garages near Disneyland in the late 1990s at a cost of over $100 million, then letting Disney keep tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue from it while the company pays just a buck a year to lease. Or when the City Council passed a resolution in 2015 that banned any gate taxes in Disney’s theme parks for 45 years and forced the city to reimburse Disney in the event one was ever passed.

Anaheim is a city that has an ugly, barely used, multimillion-dollar transportation hub because former Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle pushed for it in his dual capacity as Anaheim’s mayor and chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority back in the 2000s. As mayor pro tem back in 2009, Sidhu voted to give a luxury hotel developer a $76-million-plus tax break; as mayor, the council awarded a $425,000 no-bid contract to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce at his request barely a year after it spent nearly a quarter-million dollars to help him win the mayor’s seat in 2018.

Even the implementation of district elections in 2016, made possible by Latino activists last decade via a civil lawsuit to increase diversity on the council and hopefully check corporate power in the city, did little to stop this cesspool of cronyism. Will the current allegations finally wake up my fellow Anacrimers?

After public comments, I went outside to catch up with activists.

Some held up banners that read “Resign Disgraced Sidhu” and “Resign Dirty Harry” and posed for photos. Looking on was Cynthia Ward, a longtime Anaheim watcher who unsuccessfully ran against Sidhu in 2018.

“We show up meeting after meeting, and hope more people pay attention, but they just don’t,” she said.

A sliver of hope of what could be came in the form of Rosa Dominguez and her 26-year-old son, Alex.

The two showed up to the council meeting after hearing about the allegations and were ready to tell everyone they knew.

“A lot of people of my generation, they’ll say, ‘It’s just local politics, who cares?’ and just move on,” Alex said. “But what was told today was outrageous, and I think if people learn, they’ll start to come.”

In Spanish, his mother added: “That’s why you need to keep talking.”

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