Sometime after Harry Sidhu was elected in 2018, local business leaders gathered for a meet-and-greet with the new mayor at the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
Though then-chamber CEO Todd Ament didn’t work for City Hall, the message to the assembled crowd was: The path to get a project approved or do business with the city was through Ament, recalled Paul Kott, who’s had a real estate business in town for 40 years.
“Todd was introduced by Harry as, if somebody wanted to bring a project before the city of Anaheim, they were to bring it before Todd Ament,” Kott said.
Business leaders hobnobbing with elected officials is nothing new, but some Anaheim residents have long felt the city’s relationship with its Chamber of Commerce has been at times, as Kott put it, “too close for comfort.”
Now federal investigators are alleging that a self-described “cabal” of business and political leaders held secret retreats and exerted “significant influence” over how the city is run, bypassing the public process.
To secure search warrants for Sidhu’s email and cellphone, the FBI filed on May 12 an affidavit that outlined allegations of fraud relating to the purchase of a helicopter, and also bribery, obstruction of justice and witness tampering in connection with the city’s deal to sell Angel Stadium to SRB Management, Angels owner Arte Moreno’s business partnership. Sidhu has not been charged with anything.
And Ament appeared in federal court Tuesday, May 17, on charges of lying about his assets when purchasing a home in Big Bear City; he did not enter a plea. In an affidavit, FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins alleged Ament engaged in activities that suggest influence peddling, defrauding a business and exerting influence over Anaheim city officials.
Ament and Sidhu haven’t responded to requests for comment, and their respective attorneys have declined to comment on the allegations.
Federal authorities wouldn’t confirm the two investigations are linked, but context in court documents points to a connection. Events described in the affidavits – for search warrants in the investigation of Sidhu and for an arrest warrant of Ament – took place in similar time frames and the Ament affidavit mentions multiple unnamed Anaheim elected officials.
The Sidhu affidavit refers to an FBI investigation that led to a cooperating witness who was an employee of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. Names in the document were redacted, except in one section transcribing a taped conversation between Sidhu and the cooperating witness, when Sidhu addresses the person as Todd.
These alleged cozy relationships and behind-the-scenes influence have led to one arrest so far, they may have helped get the last city manager booted from his job, and they could spell the end of the mayor’s political career and cause the unraveling of the city’s biggest real estate deal ever – the sale of the 150-acre Angel Stadium property for $320 million.
Listening in via wiretaps and intercepting emails since 2019, Special Agent Adkins alleges a picture emerged of a small group of business and political figures, with Ament and an unnamed political consultant as its ring leaders, that was exerting influence on city policies and actions.
Ament wasn’t on the city’s payroll, but Sidhu treated him as a close advisor and he was a frequent visitor at City Hall, several people interviewed said.
“His presence on the seventh floor (where the mayor and council members have offices) was right away,” said former councilwoman Denise Barnes, who served from 2016 to 2020. “I remember seeing him there and wondering, ‘Why is the chamber so involved here?’”
Listening in on a Nov. 23, 2020, phone call between Ament and the political consultant, FBI agents said in the court documents they heard the two debating who should get an invite to one of their “retreats” and how to manage relationships with council members. Names were redacted throughout the affidavit.
“Ament: For me, we know [Elected Official 2] this much right, so if we go take him into the cabal and he’s playing double agent, then we are all screwed.
“Consultant: Right, that’s my point, I think, like for example, at the retreat, I want to have a topic being, how much do we trust [Elected Official 5]? How much do we trust [Elected Official 2]? I don’t have any doubt about [Elected Official 7]. I’m not advocating that we invite him, I’m just saying I don’t think we need to worry about him. I think ideologically he is a true believer.”
Other comments in the intercepted call included offering one official the mayor pro tem position to keep him happy and reminding him that since they just “got [him] reelected,” he should continue to play ball.
Councilman Avelino Valencia, who was elected in 2020, said he was aware the group existed, but was never officially invited to its meetings.
“I had a sense of it, but the fact that there was this system in place of secret meetings and retreats was shocking,” he said.
Valencia said he “didn’t think it was right and didn’t want to be a part of it,” and the ringleaders didn’t include him because they knew he’d push back.
Other city officials who said they went to meetings with Ament characterized them as innocuous events focused on economic concerns.
Councilman Steve Faessel and City Manager Jim Vanderpool, who took the post in September 2020, recalled attending a meeting hosted by the chamber that December, but they said it wasn’t like the alleged cabal retreats the affidavit describes.
The meeting included representatives of Anaheim hotels and other businesses and chamber staff, and the topics discussed were the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the city budget and how to get businesses open and people back to work, they said.
“I don’t think political intrigue was any part of it,” Faessel said.
While the affidavits in the Ament and Sidhu investigations don’t name the political consultant who was part of the so-called cabal, they cite details – the consultant’s firm is in the same building as the Anaheim chamber, and lobbying reports required by Anaheim show the consultant did work for stadium buyer SRB Management – that are consistent with Jeff Flint of FSB Public Affairs. Several people interviewed said Flint often participated in meetings with Ament and Sidhu regarding city business.
Asked about Ament and Flint’s involvement in city issues, former city manager Chris Zapata said, “Ultimately, they were the real shot callers in Anaheim.”
Zapata confirmed he has been interviewed by the FBI.
In an emailed statement, Flint said, “I have no hesitation in saying that I firmly believe I did nothing wrong nor illegal.” He added that it’s painful to think the allegations being made might harm his company, and he’s taking a leave of absence as CEO of FSB Public Affairs.
Councilman Trevor O’Neil said he met and talked with Flint and Ament on many occasions, since the chamber and a business lobbyist would naturally want to discuss economic issues and development projects.
“To the extent that there’s a cabal controlling city decisions is not my experience,” O’Neil said. “It’s up to us (council members) to make independent decisions on the issues before us and that’s exactly what I did.”
Councilman Jose Diaz, elected in 2020, and former council members Jordan Brandman and Lucille Kring, in office during some of the time period in question, could not be reached for comment. Councilman Jose Moreno, who often dissents from the council majority, said he wasn’t invited to the alleged retreats.
The investigations into Sidhu and Ament grew out of an unrelated probe into a person suspected of “theft or bribery” involving federal funds related to a cannabis scheme, according to court filings in Ament’s case. Melahat Rafiei, a Democratic leader and cannabis consultant in Orange County, on Thursday identified herself to the Register as the person being investigated in that case.
Rafiei began cooperating with the FBI after being arrested in 2019; she denies the allegations against her and the charges were later dismissed – though in a way they could potentially be refiled. Rafiei said in a statement that she “cooperated fully” with the FBI “in their effort to root out corruption in Anaheim city government.”
In 2019, Ament and the political consultant allegedly told Rafiei, who was wearing a wire, that paying money to join a chamber “task force” would get her client a seat at the table to help write rules for the city that would give their business an edge.
Some of the $225,000 Rafiei’s client paid for that access is alleged to have ended up in Ament’s pocket.
Rafiei told an FBI agent that her understanding was the consultant’s public affairs firm would draft a policy to be rubber-stamped by the task force, and it would get sent over to Anaheim city staff, who would present it to the City Council to consider.
Zapata offered another example of alleged influence. He said Ament and Flint were involved in the Sidhu-driven proposal to give $6.5 million in city reserve funds to tourism bureau Visit Anaheim in March 2020 – less than two weeks after all major attractions in the city, including the Disneyland Resort and Honda Center, had shut down and tourism plummeted as the coronavirus rapidly spread.
Zapata had proposed using $3 million from reserves, split evenly among aid for residents, help for struggling businesses and unexpected city expenses, such as extra cleaning and getting pandemic information out to the community, he said.
Sidhu called him back and suggested $14 million, so Zapata said OK, let’s round it up to $15 million, still split evenly among business, residents and city needs.
In a subsequent meeting with Ament, Flint, Visit Anaheim CEO Jay Burress and city executive staff, Sidhu said they should give $6.5 million of the total to Visit Anaheim. Publicly, Sidhu said the money would ensure the organization would be ready when tourism resumed.
Zapata asked if it would be a loan and was told no, it would be a grant.
“I can’t recommend that and I won’t, so I’m telling you privately what I’m going to say publicly,” Zapata said he told those in the meeting.
At a March 26 special council meeting to vote on the aid package, Zapata asked that the city at least get a business plan from Visit Anaheim before handing over the cash, and that there be some kind of metric to gauge a return on the investment. The council majority declined to add those provisions.
Council members approved the funding package. A month later, they voted 5-2 to give Zapata a $475,000 severance package to resign; council members Moreno and Barnes voted no.
Sidhu’s only public explanation at the time was “a majority of this City Council expressed its desire to move in a different direction with our city manager.”
The stadium deal
Sidhu campaigned for mayor on keeping the Angels in town. After they exercised their lease’s opt-out clause on the last day before it expired in 2018, Sidhu made resuming the stalled talks a top priority upon winning election that November.
In January 2019, Sidhu won the council’s approval to reinstate the old lease, ostensibly to buy time to negotiate a new deal.
Zapata said he suggested the city could leverage the lease extension to seek a rent hike, as Oakland was doing with the Raiders at the time.
“My response to the mayor was, ‘What are you going to charge them?’” Zapata said. “He said, ‘Free – nothing.’”
Sidhu then gave Zapata an aggressive negotiating schedule that had discussions with the team beginning in April and a council vote on a plan for the stadium and surrounding development in June.
Zapata said when he mentioned to Ament a few weeks later the proposed timeline was “asinine,” Ament replied, “You didn’t like my schedule?”
Zapata was prepared to handle the negotiations with a few executive staff and outside consultants with the appropriate expertise, he said, but Sidhu insisted on taking part.
Once part of the negotiating team, Special Agent Adkins’ affidavit alleges Sidhu appeared to have leaked the appraisal figures to the cooperating witness, who was supposed to share it with Angels representatives. Adkins also alleges Sidhu shared with the witness and the political consultant a city document outlining “key issues” for Anaheim in the negotiations over developing the property. Several months later, the consultant was hired by the stadium buyer to lobby the city regarding the sale.
Sidhu’s hope, the affidavit alleges, was to get the deal done so he could hit up the Angels for $1 million to support his reelection campaign this fall.
However, the document only goes as far as saying it “appears” Sidhu provided information and says FBI Special Agent Adkins is “unaware of any information confirming that Angels Representative 1 has, in fact, been solicited by Sidhu” for campaign contributions, or that the representative was aware of Sidhu’s intention to do so.
City officials had repeatedly rebuffed criticisms that the deal appeared slanted toward the interests of the buyer, at the expense of Anaheim residents.
Now, the $320 million deal – projected to create a vibrant entertainment district with restaurants, shops, thousands of apartments and condos and 45,000 jobs – looks like it could evaporate, and every member of the council has called on Sidhu to resign.
On Tuesday, the Anaheim City Council will discuss how to proceed.
While the council embarked on the stadium deal in good faith, knowing that it may have “an element of corruption” involved, Councilman O’Neil said, “I do not believe there is a path to continue to move it forward and don’t support it, and instead support a fresh start and beginning the process over again.”
Friday evening, Allen Abshez, an attorney representing Angels Baseball and SRB, sent the city a letter demanding the council complete the deal by June 14.
Abshez said Angels Baseball and SRB Management “have acted in good faith throughout their dealings with the city,” and SRB is ready to close the deal. He also wrote the deal reached “was the result of an honest arms-length negotiations with city staff and its advisors, and has been thoroughly analyzed and debated.”
City spokesman Mike Lyster said the legal ramifications of unraveling the deal aren’t entirely clear, but it appears “there would be some rights in the agreement and it would be up to them (SRB Management) whether they pursue those rights or not.”
The city could face consequences from the buyer if it doesn’t proceed with the deal, or a lawsuit from the state – because of an unresolved affordable housing dispute – if it does.
If the deal falls apart, Lyster said, the $50 million in deposits the city has already received would be returned to SRB.
Staff Writers Brooke Staggs and Teri Sforza contributed to this report.
Source: Orange County Register