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The original item was published from 9/15/2023 4:18:00 PM to 9/15/2023 4:34:52 PM.

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City News - Current

Posted on: May 19, 2022

[ARCHIVED] Latest: Former Anaheim mayor enters guilty plea in federal court; running timeline

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — The city of Anaheim has condemned actions documented in a federal investigation of the city's former mayor and a former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce executive. Here is what has happened, how Anaheim has responded and ongoing updates.

Here is our latest update followed by a running timeline:

LATEST UPDATES

Sept. 15, 2023: Former Anaheim mayor Harry Sidhu appears in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana and enters a guilty plea as part of a plea agreement on charges of obstruction of justice, wire fraud and making false statements to the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration. A sentencing hearing is expected in June 2024. You can read the plea agreement here.


RUNNING TIMELINE 


May 16, 2022Anaheim learns of an affidavit in a federal investigation of Sidhu; Anaheim publicly shares affidavit on city website and with major media.

May 16: Anaheim issues a statement of trouble and dismay about what is described and that the actions were outside the city’s knowledge and process on the Angel Stadium of Anaheim site. Mayor Pro Tem Trevor O'Neil is requested at City Hall for consultation with city staff.


May 16-ongoing: Anaheim shares information and comments with TV news, newspapers, online publications and other media.

May 17Mayor Pro Tem O'Neil assumes mayor duties in absence of mayor, in accordance with Anaheim's city charter.

May 17: Anaheim learns of a federal criminal complaint against former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce executive Todd Ament. You can see the complaint here.

May 17: Anaheim City Council holds regularly scheduled meeting with Mayor Sidhu absent; Council Members Avelino Valencia and Jose F. Moreno call for Sidhu resignation, Mayor Pro Tem O’Neil and Council Members Jose Diaz, Gloria Ma’ae and Stephen Faessel express serious concerns.

May 18: Mayor Pro Tem O’Neil and Council Members Faessel and Diaz issue a formal request for the mayor’s resignation to Sidhu’s lawyer. “The deeply troubling issues that have come to our attention involving Mayor Sidhu since May 16, 2022, raise serious concerns and questions about his ability to continue as mayor of Anaheim,” the letter reads. “I and my City Council colleagues now must seek to support the continuity of municipal government, uphold the public trust and continue with the business of the City of Anaheim without the distraction and uncertainty created by the federal investigation involving Mayor Sidhu.” You can read more here.

May 18: In a separate statement Council Member Ma’ae calls for Sidhu’s resignation.

May 19: Anaheim learns through media reports that cannabis consultant Melahat Rafiei was a cooperating witness in the investigation into former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce executive Ament. Rafiei steps down as a commissioner on Anaheim's Culture and Heritage Commission, an appointment made by former Anaheim Council member Jordan Brandman, who stepped down from the Council in 2021. Rafiei reportedly worked with federal investigators as the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce advocated for a proposal for Anaheim to allow cannabis businesses to operate in the city. The City Council rejected any change to the city's prohibiting of cannabis businesses on June 9, 2020. 

May 19-20: Anaheim Mayor Pro Tem O'Neil, Council Member Faessel and City Manager Jim Vanderpool share with media that they attended a Dec. 2, 2020, meeting referenced in the complaint against former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce executive Ament, saying what they recalled attending was a business meeting focused on the economic, city budget and other impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the pending rollout of vaccines and other issues related to Anaheim's economy. "What I attended was a business meeting, like others I have attended with various stakeholders in our city," Mayor Pro Tem O'Neil said. "If this meeting or any other meeting was viewed differently by others, that was not my experience or understanding." You can see documents from the meeting here. Note: cover page appears to contain wrong date, which should read Dec. 2, 2020.

May 20: Anaheim receives a letter on behalf of SRB Management LLC, pending buyer of the stadium site and made up of Angels Baseball owner Arte Moreno and family, saying the stadium site sale was negotiated in good faith with extensive public review and potential benefit for the city of Anaheim and those it serves. The letter asks for the sale to move forward by June 14, 2022. You can read the letter here. Anaheim issues statement: "We have received and are evaluating the letter. The stadium site plan was pursued in good faith and on the merits of the proposal and the benefits it could bring to our city. While what has come to light this week falls outside that process, it nonetheless raises questions, concerns and complications. City Council members have expressed initial reservations about whether this current proposal can go forward. We will look to the May 24 City Council meeting for a full discussion and direction."

May 22: Anaheim learns that cannabis consultant Rafiei resigns as a Democratic National Committee state representative and as secretary for the California Democratic Party; the moves follow her May 19 resignation from Anaheim's Culture and Heritage Commission and the OC Fair Board.

May 23: Anaheim receives notice that Mayor Sidhu is resigning, effective May 24. A vacancy will be addressed by the City Council in consultation with city attorney, city clerk, Anaheim’s charter and state law in coming weeks. You can read more here.

May 24: Anaheim’s City Council unanimously votes to void 2020 agreement to sell Angel Stadium of Anaheim and see development around it. “The stadium proposal was evaluated and approved on its merits,” Mayor Pro Tem O’Neil said. “However knowing that there may have been an element of corruption that brought the final product to us, we cannot move forward in good conscience.” The action directs the city attorney to immediately void the stadium site sale and notify buyer SRB Management. The action also starts a legal process that will involve filing a motion for declaratory judgment in Orange County Superior Court based on concerns of conflict of interest and that the transaction was not at arm’s length.

May 25: Anaheim sends letter to SRB Management notifying of City Council decision to void 2020 agreement to sell Angel Stadium of Anaheim and see development around it. "... (I)n the best interests of the Angels and the residents of Anaheim, the city believes the (purchase and sale agreement) is void as a matter of law and public policy. Given these extraordinary and deeply disturbing circumstances, the city requests that SRB and the Angels join with the city in acknowledging that the PSA is void." You can read the letter here. You can read more on the City Council’s decision here.

May 27: SRB Management notifies city, shares publicly that it accepts the City Council decision to void the 2020 agreement. SRB statement: "Given that the City Council unanimously voted to cancel the stadium land agreement, we believe it is the best interest of our fans, Angels Baseball, and the community to accept the city’s cancellation. Now we will continue our focus on our fans and the baseball season.” Anaheim Mayor Pro Tem O'Neil statement: "We welcome and thank the Angels for their mutual understanding of what is called for in this moment. It is the right thing to do. But a long-term plan for the stadium site and baseball in Anaheim are still opportunities we want to explore. We will continue working to get past this moment with the door open for a fresh start when the time is right."

June 2: Anaheim compiles publicly available filings on campaign contributions made to former mayor Sidhu from 2017 through most recent six-month reporting period through the end of 2021, along with any agreements or contracts contributors may have with the city of Anaheim and whether they were approved by the City Council or administratively. You can see the report here. The compiled data is part of a City Council agenda item for the June 7 meeting. Contributions for the first six months of 2022 are set to be available in July.

June 7:

  • Anaheim City Council discusses mayor vacancy; city attorney offers opinion that mayor pro tem handles duties of mayor in absence of mayor, including resignation; Council continues vacancy discussion to June 21
  • City Council reviews compiled campaign contributions to former mayor Sidhu and contracts or agreements contributors may have with the city; Council directs staff to seek proposals for an independent audit of campaign contributions and city contracts for review of proposals on June 21
  • Council discusses campaign finance and reporting reform proposals, continues item to June 21 with the COVID-19 absence of Council Member Jose Diaz
  • Council authorizes release of $50 million in stadium site escrow account back to SRB Management, pending a written agreement with SRB to formally void stadium sale

June 9: Former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce executive Ament agrees to plead guilty to submitting a false tax return, lying to a mortgage lender and two counts of wire fraud and to cooperate with the federal government's ongoing investigation. You can read the plea agreement here.


June 13: Anaheim and SRB Management formally agree to cancel proposed stadium site sale with SRB agreeing not to pursue a sale in court and Anaheim releasing $50 million in escrow deposits back to SRB. You can read the agreement here.


June 15: SRB Management advises the city of a claim for $5 million in costs incurred related to the voided stadium site sale proposal. You can read SRB's letter here. Anaheim issues statement: "We have received SRB's letter, which was expected. As we agreed to release escrow deposits and SRB agreed not to seek a court order compelling a sale, other legal positions and questions remained for future discussions. We continue to have concerns about whether the agreement any anticipated claim is based on is even valid, given what has recently come to light. Nevertheless, we will process a claim as we would any other and look to any pending discussions with SRB as well as any guidance from our City Council."


June 21:

  • Anaheim City Council votes to request proposals for an independent review of campaign contributions, city contracts as well as any undue influence, serial meetings or issues with staff, with a review focused on former mayor Sidhu and current and past Council members since 2016; Council expected to consider proposals on July 19.
  • City Council votes not to approve nominations of either former mayor Tom Tait or businessman Paul Kott as interim mayor; Council set to continue as six members with a mayor pro tem for the time being. 
  • City Council deadlocks 3-3 with no approval of a campaign finance proposal that would have required recusal from items involving campaign contributors of $250 or more for six months and to require reporting within 72 hours of contributions of $250 or more within 90 days of an election.

June 27: Orange County Grand Jury releases report on stadium process. You can read it here. Anaheim releases statement: "We appreciate the grand jury’s review. With recent events and new information brought to light, those issues now are being thoroughly discussed as part of a new, extensive public process for our city."

July 1: Former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce executive Ament formally enters guilty plea in federal court to filing a false tax return, lying to a mortgage lender and two counts of wire fraud. You can see the press release here. You can read Ament's plea agreement here.


July 12: City Council considers campaign finance reform for third time since June 7 with no action taken; return to campaign finance reform proposal from June 21 rejected; several amendments to July 12 proposal to adopt California’s Levine Act standards rejected; proposal to adopt Levine Act standards dropped amid lack of consensus.


Aug. 4:

  • Anaheim releases proposed response to June 27 Orange County Grand Jury report on stadium process as part of the agenda for the City Council’s Aug. 9 meeting. You can read it here. Anaheim releases statement: "We welcome the report and the chance to respond to it. There are areas of agreement and others where we can clarify or correct the record. We now look forward to any City Council discussion on Tuesday.”
  • Anaheim includes with agenda for the City Council’s Aug. 9 meeting four proposals received in response to the city's request for an independent investigation and audit. You can see the staff report and proposals here.

Aug. 9:

  • Anaheim City Council selects Laguna Niguel-based JL Group LLC for independent investigation and audit after hearing from four firms that submitted proposals. You can see JL Group’s proposal here. The Council also selects retired judge Clay Smith as neutral administrator of the investigation and audit. You can read Smith's biography here.
  • Anaheim City Council puts off and continues to its Aug. 23 meeting a discussion of a proposed response to the Orange County Grand Jury report on stadium sale proposal process. You can read the proposed response here.

Aug. 23: Anaheim City Council votes to submit a response as prepared by staff, without changes, to the Orange County Grand Jury report on stadium sale proposal process. You can read the response here

Sept. 13: Anaheim City Council votes to update lobbying ordinance and extend email retention policy from 90 days to two years. 

  • The email retention update applies to City Council members, City Council staff, and city executive staff. 
  • Changes to the lobbying ordinance include a misdemeanor penalty for a lobbyist who doesn't register with the city, doesn't file a lobbying report, files a false or inaccurate report or conceals compensation for lobbying activity. A first time offense could result in a $1,000 fine, up to six months in jail and a ban on lobbyist activity in Anaheim for one year. A second offense would extend the ban to three years.

Sept. 29: Anaheim receives letter from SRB Management LLC raising issue with a City Council-approved plan to build a fire station on city land near Angel Stadium of Anaheim; letter also references a June 15 claim for $5 million in costs incurred related to the voided stadium site sale proposal. You can read the letter here. Anaheim's City Council is set to hear the issue on Oct. 4 in closed session.

Oct. 25: Anaheim City Council receives update on investigation into former mayor Harry Sidhu's campaign contributions, staff participation, if any, and any violation of serial meetings and communications. The independent administrator and retired judge Clay Smith and JL Group shared that they are in the early stages of the investigation, have identified more than 180 witnesses and plan to complete their report in spring 2023. You can view the update here, under Council meeting item No. 24. 

Oct. 27: Anaheim informs SRB that it will continue design work but pause any actual construction on a proposed fire station near Angel Stadium of Anaheim to separate the issue from SRB's June 15 claim for $5 million in costs incurred related to the voided stadium site sale proposal. You can read the fire station letter here. SRB's claim remains under review, both administratively and by Anaheim's City Council in closed session.

Nov. 15: Anaheim responds to a Los Angeles Times petition against former mayor Harry Sidhu and also citing the city of Anaheim. The petition is over the former mayor’s invoking of the Fifth Amendment and his now-ended city relationship in response to public records requests. Here is the city's statement in response to the petition:

We disagree with the characterization of Anaheim and see the city’s inclusion in the petition as unnecessary.

Anaheim has provided extensive city records and pressed for the search and disclosure of any responsive records held by the former mayor as well as his former aide. That is spelled out in exchanges initiated by the city with the former mayor’s attorney. Those exchanges detail Anaheim’s work to meet public records obligations while dealing with a personal device beyond our control.

We support the disclosure of any responsive records. Ultimately, the issues raised by the former mayor’s attorney are a matter for the courts to decide.

You can read the exchange between the city and Paul Meyer, the former mayor’s lawyer, here

You can read the Times' petition here.

Nov. 15: Anaheim City Council unanimously votes to make public upon receipt from consultant JL Group an independent report and audit on campaign contributions, city contracts, any undue influence, serial meetings or issues with staff.

Jan. 18, 2023: Cannabis consultant Melahat Rafiei of Long Beach-based Progressive Solutions agrees to plead guilty to one felony count of attempted wire fraud. You can read the plea agreement here. Rafiei is accused of defrauding a cannabis client amid lobbying efforts to change Anaheim's cannabis ordinance. The City Council rejected any change to the Anaheim's prohibiting of cannabis businesses on June 9, 2020. Rafiei also served as a commissioner on Anaheim's Culture and Heritage Commission, an appointment she stepped down from on May 19, 2022.

Feb. 2, 2023: Anaheim City Council is set to receive a Feb. 7 update from retired judge and administrator Clay Smith and JL Group on its independent review and audit of campaign contributions and other issues related to former mayor Harry Sidhu. The update also includes a request for $750,000 in additional funding, above and beyond an original $750,000 allocated for a six-month investigation.

Feb. 7, 2023: Anaheim City Council directs administrator Clay Smith and JL Group to come back on Feb. 28 with a narrowed scope and cost for completing its independent review and audit of campaign contributions and other issues related to former mayor Harry Sidhu, in response to a request for $750,000 in additional funding through July 1, above and beyond an original $750,000 allocated for a six-month investigation commissioned on Aug. 9, 2022.

Feb. 28, 2023: Anaheim City Council approves continuing and completing the work of JL Group and administrator Clay Smith with $750,000 in additional funding through July 1, for a not-to-exceed total of $1.5 million, with added conditions of regular detailed monthly progress reports, permitting investigators to share investigation details with the Orange County District Attorney and requiring investigators to refrain from talking with media about their work until a report is done.

April 14, 2023: Cannabis consultant Melahat Rafiei of Long Beach-based Progressive Solutions enters a guilty plea in a felony wire fraud charge related to the defrauding of a cannabis client amid lobbying efforts to change Anaheim's cannabis ordinance. You can read the plea agreement here. In the plea agreement, Rafiei is also accused of bribing two former Irvine City Council members but is not charged with bribery. Anaheim's City Council rejected any change to the Anaheim's prohibiting of cannabis businesses on June 9, 2020. Rafiei also served as a commissioner on Anaheim's Culture and Heritage Commission, an appointment she stepped down from on May 19, 2022.

May 2, 2023: Anaheim’s City Council reaffirms a 2022 vote to make public an independent investigation report while ensuring compliance with state law, employee privacy and other considerations to protect the city and its residents from legal issues, liability and cost. The action does not change the scope of the investigation, the independent work of investigators or the Council’s prior decision to make the report public. Read more here.

June 22, 2023: A preliminary independent investigation report by Laguna Niguel-based JL Group LLC is expected to be provided to the city attorney's office on July 3, the first business day following a pledged date of July 1, a Saturday. The preliminary report is then set to undergo review by outside attorney Scott Tiedemann of Los Angeles-based Liebert Cassidy Whitmore for compliance with state law, employee privacy and other considerations, with a goal of releasing a reviewed and redacted report within 30 days. A progress update to the City Council is expected in July. You can read more here.

July 4, 2023: Anaheim receives an initial draft independent investigation report by Laguna Niguel-based JL Group LLC and is awaiting a complete report in coming days. A process of review for compliance with state law, employee privacy and other considerations has started by outside attorney Scott Tiedemann of Los Angeles-based Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, with a goal of releasing a reviewed report within 30 days of receiving a complete report from JL Group. A progress update to the City Council is expected in July. You can read more about the report review here.

July 10, 2023: Anaheim receives a complete preliminary independent investigation report by Laguna Niguel-based JL Group LLC, after receiving an initial draft on July 4. Review for compliance with state law, employee privacy and other considerations continues by outside attorney Scott Tiedemann of Los Angeles-based Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, with a goal of releasing a reviewed report within 30 days. A progress update to the City Council is expected July 18. You can read more about the report review here.

July 13, 2023: Anaheim's City Council on Tuesday is set to consider items related to an independent investigation report received in full on July 10 from Laguna Niguel-based JL Group LLC. The Council is set to consider waiving attorney-client privilege to clear the way for public release of a final report with some redactions and also vote on releasing an unredacted report to the California attorney general and the FBI, following a prior action to provide an unredacted report to the Orange County District Attorney. The Council is also expected to receive a general update on the report, which is 300 pages and currently under review by outside attorney Scott Tiedemann of Los Angeles-based Liebert Cassidy Whitmore and the Anaheim city attorney's office and human resources department. Limited redactions are expected with public release of a reviewed report expected in late July or early August. You can see a staff report for the July 18 meeting here.

July 18, 2023: Anaheim's City Council voted to waive attorney-client privilege and cleared the way for public release of an independent investigation report with limited redactions. The Council also voted to release unredacted versions to the California attorney general and the FBI, following prior direction in February to provide an unredacted report to the Orange County District Attorney. A preliminary report from Laguna Niguel-based JL Group LLC was received in full by the Anaheim city attorney on July 10 and is currently under review by outside attorney Scott Tiedemann of Los Angeles-based Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, the city attorney's office and human resources department. The preliminary report was provided to the Orange County District Attorney in mid-July. Limited redactions are expected with public release of a reviewed report, which is expected at the end of July or early August. 

July 31, 2023: Anaheim releases an independent investigation report with some redactions. The report is posted on Anaheim.net as a press release and shared on social media. You can read more here.

Aug. 15-16, 2023: Anaheim’s City Council voted on a set of items proposed by Mayor Ashleigh Aitken following the July 31 release of an independent investigation report (more on the report here):

 

Visit Anaheim 

  • The Council approved sending a letter of support to the California State Auditor for a pending state audit of $6.5 million in city money provided to Visit Anaheim in 2020, with $1.5 million reported to have been unknowingly shared with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
  • The Council approved having city staff assist with and support a pending state audit.
  • The Council voted to explore whether it is possible to pause the city’s disbursement of money collected by hotels to Visit Anaheim.
  • The Council voted to explore options under the city’s contract with Visit Anaheim to potentially halt any relationships between Visit Anaheim and the Anaheim Chamber and to inquire if any relationships between the two are allowable under the city’s contract with Visit Anaheim.
  • The Council voted to explore requiring more detailed financial information in reporting from Visit Anaheim under the city’s contract.

 City manager contract signing 

  • The City Council voted to look at what other cities and the county of Orange do with administrative contract approval with a goal of considering a standardized way of setting and adjusting city manager contract signing authority.
  •  The Council also voted to have staff look at how city manager approved contracts are listed on the city’s website.

 City Hall worker protection  

  • The City Council voted to expand and rename the city’s existing fraud hotline to also encourage reporting of employee concerns about misconduct or harassment.

 Lobbying ordinance, public sharing of calendars  

  • The City Council voted to have staff report back on options to potentially strengthen the city’s lobbying ordinance, including with consideration of reporting by Council members and executive staff of any meetings with lobbyists
  • The Council also voted to bring back options for consideration on making public Council member calendars and those of the city manager and assistant city manager.

Aug. 16, 2023: Former Anaheim mayor Harry Sidhu agrees to plead guilty to obstruction of justice, wire fraud, making false statements to the Federal Aviation Administration and false statements to the FBI. You can read the plea agreement here.


Aug. 24, 2023: Anaheim's city attorney sends a letter to Visit Anaheim seeking the return of $1.5 million in pandemic relief funding and potentially up to $6.5 million provided in 2020 after $1.5 million is reported to have been unknowingly shared with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. The letter also calls for a halting of any additional transfer of hotel assessment funding to the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce from Visit Anaheim pending a state audit, which is underway as of late August. You can read the city attorney's letter here.


Aug. 29, 2023: Anaheim receives notices that Visit Anaheim is halting any sharing of hotel assessment funding and a management agreement with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, and that the tourism bureau is conducting an internal audit and expects to respond within two to four weeks to the city's demand to return $1.5 million in pandemic relief funding reported to have been unknowingly shared with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. 


Aug. 29, 2023: Anaheim’s City Council votes to set a schedule of meetings through November to discuss recommendations from the independent investigation report.

 

Sept. 15, 2023: Former Anaheim mayor Harry Sidhu appears in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana and enters a guilty plea as part of a plea agreement on charges of obstruction of justice, wire fraud and making false statements to the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration. A sentencing hearing is expected in June 2024. You can read the plea agreement here.