SACRAMENTO — Longtime Anaheim watchers, myself included, should refrain from schadenfreude — the German word for “pleasure derived…from another person’s misfortune.” We eagerly read the details of a federal investigation that touches on a “cabal” of city insiders who, to paraphrase HL Mencken, have shown as much civility as an average walker.
In reality, it is a sad story that should not have happened like this. Anaheim could have followed its better angels and followed the path set by its more civic former leaders, who preferred pro-liberty policies to crony capitalism.
The government hasn’t charged anyone with a crime, but Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned as mayor of Anaheim last week, after an FBI affidavit alleges he “shared privileged and confidential information with the Angels during stadium sale negotiations … and expects to receive campaign contributions as a result.” Sidhu denies any wrongdoing.
I almost wrote “Harry Sidhu, resident of Arizona” because the FBI also alleges that Sidhu – who presumably lives in Anaheim Hills – registered a helicopter he bought at an address in Scottsdale to avoid paying more $15,000 in California taxes.
In a separate case, a federal affidavit details an alleged conspiracy in which former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament and a political consultant “conceived a scheme to launder proceeds intended for the Chamber by the public relations firm on Ament’s bank account” to help him buy a mountain home, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. We should withhold judgment until it is played.
But that’s what jumped out at me. Authorities say Ament and this consultant were the ringleaders of a small insider group that “would have exerted influence over government operations in Anaheim.” Anaheim’s political class is — please start rolling your eyes — shocked by the allegations. Sidhu’s council allies quickly threw him under the bus.
If the cabal reports are accurate, then Sidhu was not the big fish. He is just the latest official to serve as a figurehead. Sidhu never seemed to have a strong political philosophy – but he clearly enjoyed the limelight, talking about “strengthening the American dream” and promising big things for the city of Anaheim.
As Politico reported, the Feds describe the cabal “moving the chosen ones around like chess pieces, mocking one for clumsily writing a ‘script’ for him.” Such behavior is not illegal, but it is what has caused so much local consternation. It has long been clear that Anaheim was operating covertly – for the apparent benefit of vested interests rather than the public.
Home to two professional sports teams and Disneyland, Orange County’s largest city offered political temptations beyond what its size would suggest. One only has to watch Anaheim’s town hall meetings to realize — and I’m trying to be charitable — that his board is out of his league against corporate interests seeking subsidies, influence, and lopsided deals. .
The recent letter from an Angels attorney asking the city to complete the stadium sale by June 14 provides some insight into the uneven playing field. Hadn’t the company been paying attention to the mayor’s resignation, the federal investigation, and Attorney General Rob Bonta’s request for the court to suspend an affordable housing regulation? Obviously, the team saw what was happening but insisted that the city make the deal anyway, regardless of the civic ramifications. The company didn’t say “or other,” but we can read between the lines.
It’s not so much the salacious allegations of the feds that worry me, but rather the city’s modus operandi. Anaheim was on the verge of selling its largest public asset – Angel Stadium and the surrounding prime acreage – to a development group controlled by the team owner for less than market value. He tried to do it secretly. He would have consummated the gift (after the courts and housing officials gave the okay), if the federal government had not intervened.
The council provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to the Chamber of Commerce to provide “services” that city staff could have provided. Although the deal later went south, the city offered Disney a $267 million tax break to build a luxury hotel, embodying Anaheim’s crony capitalist governance approach.
In 2018, the city’s principled anti-subsidy Republican mayor, Tom Tait, was removed from office. As David Bahnsen wrote in National Review, November’s mayoral race pitted “a well-heeled, grant-loving Republican…against a Democrat and another Republican who don’t have the financial resources to run a big country “. You can guess the name of that well-heeled candidate and imagine the level of political spending that year.
In the early 2000s, then-City Councilor Tait spearheaded this “freedom-respecting” approach that rejected subsidies and patronage. The city kept taxes low, made it easy for all businesses of any size to operate in the city, and focused on the workings of government. But Anaheim has finally embraced the dark side. None of us should take pleasure in watching this ugly spectacle unfold.
Steven Greenhut is director of the West Region of the R Street Institute and a member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group. Email him at [email protected]