Secret retreats and a powerful ‘cabal’: Corruption probe reveals who really runs Anaheim
A year and a half ago, two power brokers in Anaheim discussed a critical question on the phone: Who should they invite to a secretive gathering of Anaheim business leaders, consultants and politicians?
It would be a “retreat” at a local hotel, and one of them described their small group as a “cabal.” Attendance would be limited to people they could trust or, as they put it, “family members only.”
What the men didn’t know was that the FBI was listening.
As Todd Ament, then head of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, and an unnamed political consultant discussed which City Council members to bring into the group, the consultant boasted about the sway they held over Orange County’s most populous city: “We tell [Elected Official 4], we got you reelected, we expect you to be a loyal member of the team.”
At one point in the call, Ament assessed the wisdom of inviting an unnamed Anaheim City Council member: “For me,” he said, “we know [him] this much right. So if we take him into the cabal and he’s playing double-agent, then we are all screwed.”
Todd Ament, former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce chief, is charged with lying to a home lender in growing Orange County political corruption scandal.
The recorded conversations filed in court this week have thrust the city — best known as home to Disneyland Resort, Major League Baseball’s Angels and the National Hockey League’s Ducks — into the middle of a burgeoning public corruption scandal.
The allegations have imperiled the city’s planned $320-million sale of Angel Stadium to the team, sent shockwaves through Anaheim’s political establishment and provided a rare, unvarnished look at how business is done behind closed doors in the city of 350,000.
In an affidavit filed last week supporting a federal search warrant targeting Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu, FBI special agent Brian Adkins wrote that Anaheim “was tightly controlled by a small cadre of individuals,” including Sidhu. In a criminal complaint filed this week against Ament, accused of lying to a mortgage lender, Adkins alleged that Ament and the political consultant “had defined a specific, covert group of individuals that wielded significant influence over the inner workings of Anaheim’s Government.”
The self-described cabal arranged retreats for power brokers and held so much sway that the political consultant drafted a script about a bond measure — with input from Ament and a person identified as an employee of Company A — for a City Council member to use at a March 2021 meeting, then mocked his delivery.
“[Elected Official 1] reads your script so poorly,” the employee of Company A wrote in a text message to the political consultant intercepted by the FBI.
“Lol,” the consultant responded. “He doesn’t practice.”
Adkins, the FBI agent, described the political consultant as a “principal partner” of a public affairs firm that used the same office building as the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. Those details match Jeff Flint, the chief executive and senior partner at FSB Public Affairs, which has an office in the same building as the chamber. Flint has represented Angels owner Arte Moreno and Disneyland Resort.
In a statement Wednesday, Flint said, “I have no hesitation in saying that I firmly believe I did nothing wrong nor illegal” but will take a leave of absence as CEO.
The state attorney general has asked for the Angel Stadium land sale to be paused because of a corruption investigation into Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu.
Company A is referenced in the complaint as “an influential company located in Anaheim,” but no other details are provided. Sidhu has not been charged. Ament has yet to enter a plea.
Jodi Balma, political science professor at Fullerton College, said the court filings portrayed the mayor as behaving like “Boss Tweed, this backroom, smoke-filled deal maker.” She said anyone watching Anaheim politics wouldn’t be shocked to learn that a “cabal” controlled the city.
Anaheim has long been known in Orange County political circles as a company town. Disneyland Resort loomed over the city’s power structure, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaigns to elect council members who would support policies favorable to it.
But Anaheim is also a city of stark divides between the business elites who have the ear of the city’s politicians, the wealthy residents who live in a heavily white and affluent neighborhood known as Anaheim Hills, and the city’s flatlands, where the city’s more working-class Latino population resides.
Many in the city — particularly workers who clean hotel rooms, mop the floors and work the stands at Disneyland Resort — have long felt politically marginalized.
Much of the recent turmoil revolves around Angel Stadium. In the search warrant affidavit, Adkins alleged that Sidhu provided confidential information to the Angels on at least two occasions during the city’s negotiations with the team over the 150-acre stadium property and obstructed an Orange County Grand Jury investigation into the deal. The mayor, Adkins wrote, hoped to solicit $1 million in campaign contributions from the Angels in exchange for his help. The affidavit — which shows the FBI suspects the mayor of bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering — doesn’t accuse the Angels of any wrongdoing or indicate the team knew about his plan.
When Sidhu joined the city’s negotiating team in July 2019, Adkins alleged, the influence of cabal members “may have been used to sway the City Council vote in favor of his appointment — and only his appointment — to the negotiating team.”
The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development issued a notice to the city in December that the stadium deal violated the Surplus Land Act, which requires public agencies to prioritize affordable housing, parks and open space when they sell property. The city denied wrongdoing. As part of a stipulated settlement last month, the city agreed to pay $96 million to create a fund to build affordable housing.
An Orange County Superior Court judge paused the sale for 60 days on Tuesday in response to a request by the state attorney general that made public the search warrant targeting Sidhu. The state attorney general’s filing suggested the revelations in the warrant could lead to the settlement being void and “new and developing information concerning potential violations of state and federal law … are likely to be forthcoming.”
The city described the federal investigation as a “review related to the proposed sale of Angel Stadium” in a news release Monday, then followed two days later with an unusual release announcing that three City Council members had sent a letter to Sidhu’s attorney seeking the mayor’s resignation because of the probe “stemming from independent actions he may have taken” relating to the stadium deal.
“The deeply troubling issues that have come to our attention involving Mayor Sidhu ... raise serious concerns and questions about his ability to continue as mayor of Anaheim,” the letter to Sidhu’s attorney said.
If the Angel Stadium deal collapses, what happens? The Angels have options, but few of them would be a win for taxpayers.
Sidhu, a Republican elected as mayor in 2018, uses the slogan that Anaheim is the “City that Empowers the American Dream.” He is up for reelection in November.
The mayor learned of the federal investigation in February as part of a ruse where a cooperating witness — Ament — gave him a fake federal grand jury subpoena seeking communications related to the stadium deal. The affidavit showed the mayor’s growing suspicion: “At various times, Sidhu questioned whether the federal government was monitoring phones and/or emails, even inquiring whether the government would need to obtain an ‘okay from the court’ to do so.”
Control of Anaheim by this small group of insiders wasn’t always so complete.
In 2012, city leaders considered granting a $158-million bed-tax subsidy to the developer of two four-star hotels near the resort. The deal sparked outrage among critics who argued it was an unjustifiable giveaway of taxpayer funds. Then-Mayor Tom Tait opposed the deal. At the time, it was seen by political observers as a remarkable break with the usual group of insiders who moved in unity to grant deals favorable to the city’s business leaders. For a brief time between 2016 and 2018, Tait led the council majority.
But the complaint and affidavit portray a city — known around the world for attracting more than 25 million tourists each year — where the levers of power are still pulled by a handful of insiders.
“I was shocked when I read the affidavit and how it described such a structured system,” said Councilman Avelino Valencia, who believes he is the elected official characterized in the intercepted call as a possible double agent. “I was aware that there were periodic gatherings where conversations took place about big picture Anaheim politics, but never did I expect it to be this sophisticated.”
The FBI alleges Mayor Harry Sidhu may have committed crimes that include fraud, theft or bribery, making false statements, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
On one intercepted call, Ament and the political consultant discussed whether a council member identified in the affidavit as “Elected Official 7" could stomach joining the cabal. Ament brought up a group called Support Our Anaheim Resort that’s composed of business owners, community leaders and residents that was founded with financial backing from Disney.
“I think this would be a lot for him to absorb in his first week [as an elected member of the Anaheim City Council],” Ament said. “It’s kind of like when S.O.A.R. took how the sausage was made to the S.O.A.R. Board to show them how polling works and how we manipulate it. That’s when half of S.O.A.R. kind of went off the deep end.”
The political consultant laughed.
“We’re part of the manipulation,” Ament continued. “I think it’s too early for [Elected Official 7] to get into this level of detail.”
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.
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