No campaign finance reform for Anaheim

No campaign finance reform is coming for Anaheim, a city embroiled in one of the biggest public corruption scandals in recent Southern California history and whose issues are now being discussed in places like the ‘grocery.

Over the past 60 days, an FBI corruption investigation has brought waves of angry speakers in a choir to City Hall, demanding that city council members limit the influence of the Disneyland resort on the making of policies — and their own electoral prospects — that are backed by station money in campaigns.

At the center of the uproar is what the FBI describes as a “framework” of powerful individuals who influence City Hall, in written affidavits released as part of the federal bureau’s investigation.

[Read: FBI Reveals What Many Anaheim Residents Felt For Years, City Hall is Run By The Chamber of Commerce]

Residents and a few critical local officials say part of the problem starts with the large sums of corporate money in local elections, where corporate-controlled political action committees, or PACs, spend big on certain candidates.

Without sufficient support from the city council, all recent attempts at reform have failed, most recently at Tuesday’s council meeting, where residents said they received the clearest signal yet that interests under the microscope of the FBI are now clinging “with all their might to stay in power.”

Pro-resort council members Trevor O’Neil, Gloria Ma’ae and Jose Diaz all voted against every reform policy pushed by their colleagues that night, who backed contribution limits and vote recusals related to donors to varying degrees. A tamer campaign finance measure was also removed from the prosecution.

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For now, council members won’t have to leave the room during votes that impact someone who has donated to them in the last 12 months.

Potential donors will not be barred from contributing to elected officials for another 12 months after a vote in which they have an interest.

Since the FBI investigation surfaced in late May, locals have implicated every council member through the lens of scandal except for Jose Moreno, the panel’s lone dissenter and frequent critic of the grants. to city resorts at taxpayer expense.

There are different reasons behind the residents’ gripes: council members who ignored warnings about the controversial but now dead sale of the Angel Stadium land, council members who took money from the same corporate PACs now under the FBI’s microscope.

Some on the dais find themselves on Moreno’s side more often these days, as recent meetings have seen a consistently large and emotional crowd.

At a previous meeting on June 7 – the last time the podium opposed the campaign finance reform proposal – Council member Stephen Faessel voted for Moreno’s proposal, although both usually take opposing positions, as does Council member Avelino Valencia.

But like Tuesday, politics died that month without the support of O’Neil, Ma’ae and Diaz.

Faessel deferred the matter for reconsideration at Tuesday’s board meeting.

But the same three officials voted “No” again – even when the policies’ main proponent, Moreno, disaggregated the proposal and asked the panel to vote on each item, one by one, in response to the cry of excess. the other side. This included a motion from Valencia to include a requirement to report contributions of $250 or more within 72 hours.

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Faessel himself caused some alarm on Tuesday. On the agenda for the meeting was not the same Moreno proposal that the board had voted on in June, the one that board members like Valencia said they assumed would be back before them this that evening. And before Faessel could publicly explain why, locals had finished reading what they considered a much tamer version.

For one speaker, Victoria Michaels, the new document showed “what appears to be a very corrupt majority of the city council” in a fight “with all their might to stay in power”.

“When I read the staff report, from point 16… I could smell something rotten in our city,” Michaels said, facing the council during public comments. “A miasma or cloud emanated from the pages – Mr. O’Neil, I would appreciate your attention.”

Faessel, as he spoke, said he had pared down the earlier June 7 policy, which Moreno supported, to come up with a basic document.

Faessel said he intended the document to be expanded or built on some sort of compromise, right there at the dais on Tuesday. Although he pointed out that the June 7 version of the policy already lacked support in the council.

Not a resident spoke out against the reform proposals on Tuesday.

Unlike June’s policy, Faessel’s new version would not require recusal of donor-related votes if the money came from a PAC. The public would have no avenue to enforce the law if people found violations.

Also missing, Moreno noted on Tuesday, were restrictions on campaign debt, an issue Moreno linked to some of the FBI’s alleged bribery and quid pro quo schemes — and the psychology of the political fundraising culture in town. .

“The power of politics in money is so seductive,” he said during the discussion. “We are getting lost.”

Moreno focused on cases where candidates, seeking to contribute to their own campaigns, lend their own money to their fundraising committees.

“One of the initial proposals I made was that we could only have a 6 month window to pay off any debts that one might have given to one’s own campaign. A reminder: What is campaign debt? If I lend myself $10,000 to my campaign, then when I get elected, I may have fundraisers afterwards, where some interested party in town who wants to influence me will hand over a check for $1,000 to my campaign committee (to help recover money that a candidate loaned to their own campaign), and that committee will then write a check for $1,000 to my bank account,” Moreno said. .

“It’s a check less than a bribe,” he said to applause. “It’s a check less than a bribe.”

But it could start innocently, Moreno said. “Some people lend each other money because they don’t want to depend on vested interests.”

Next, Moreno pointed the finger at former mayor Harry Sidhu, who the FBI says tried to pass off the sale of the Angel Stadium land for $1 million in campaign support. Earlier in the discussion, Valencia said: “The former mayor of this city used a loophole and asked for a million dollar campaign contribution not only from his personal committee account, but also from independent support. to expenses.”

Sidhu resigned in late May, shortly after the FBI affidavits were made public. The former mayor had maintained through his lawyer that he had done nothing wrong and was not currently facing any charges.

The 2016 Sidhu State Assembly and 2018 Anaheim mayoral elections incurred more than $100,000 in campaign debt, which Moreno pointed out during a presentation on his various reform proposals. .

Moreno said campaign debt opens up the “seduction” of special interest money.

Sidhu paid off his Assembly campaign debt in 2019 through fundraisers set up by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.

[Read: Anaheim Mayor Sidhu Pays Off 2016 Assembly Debt by Fundraising While Mayor]

“Let’s get rid of the conditions that create this seduction,” Moreno said.

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On Tuesday night, Faessel once again sided with Moreno on some of the ideas.

But O’Neil, Ma’ae and Diaz did not move on their positions. Some called the policy excessive in relation to existing state laws, or claimed it would give an “unfair” voice to what others deemed special interests “more acceptable.”

“The order in front of us (Faessel’s version) is an improvement and I recognize that and agree with the removal of independent spending (from the applicability of the tighter restrictions), but that is an area in which we have no control, right? We have no control,” said Ma’ae, a pro-resort council member.

Prior to his appointment to city council last year, to fill a vacancy, Ma’ae served on the advisory board of SOAR, a political action committee Disney uses to spend more than $1 million supporting candidates. favorable to the station through independent spending.

Ma’ae said she “never had any experience with campaign reform – this is all very new to me”.

She referred to a hypothetical scenario in which a significant number of council members could receive a donation from someone vying for an “essential contract for an operation or a city ordinance that is needed.”

“I am also concerned about the impact this could have on candidates who wish to run for office in our city,” she added, also arguing that staff could be “burdened” by oversight duties “ already managed “by other agencies, agencies” which clearly prohibit quid-pro-quo and pay-for-play.

Council member Diaz, also backed by the resort, claimed the pendulum of undue influence could swing the other way as a result of Moreno’s proposed campaign finance policies. Diaz, looking for comparisons, invoked Jewish-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros.

But Democrats and Republicans have publicly spoken out against the influence of the resort industry. “It wasn’t the workforce that controlled the council or Soros,” Moreno replied; it was “the hospitality industry”.

Still, the three pro-station officials voted against the measures and at one point supported rescinding the document that Faessel had already rescinded.

“Many council members stayed silent until they couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t assume my public comments here will carry more weight than some of the vested interests that got you elected or appointed,” longtime resident Carlos Leon said during public comments.

Why would you be against the six-month recusal period? Why would you be against waiting to fundraise until the year of the election? Why would you be against the return of transparency to the town hall? ” he added.

Rather than deciding the whole policy at once, Moreno decided to separate the vote by each element of his proposal, such as recusal rules, contribution limits and the power of public enforcement if residents found violations.

When it came time to make a decision, it was one dead end after another.

“I was hopeful that through a number of compromises we could have found a way forward,” Faessel said before retracting his more fundamental policy. “In three meetings now, we haven’t been able to move forward.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and a body member of Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.

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