Missing Money in Anaheim? Visit Anaheim CEO Resigns After Allegations of Rerouting Tax Dollars

Jay Burress, CEO and President of Visit Anaheim, has resigned amid allegations he helped divert $1.5 million in tax dollars to an Anaheim Chamber of Commerce-controlled nonprofit in the midst of one of the biggest corruption scandals to hit Orange County. 

Christina Dawson, senior vice president of operations for Visit Anaheim – the local tourism bureau – confirmed Thursday that Burress resigned last week and a search to replace him as president and CEO is ongoing.

She declined to comment further.

Mike Lyster, a city spokesperson, said in a Wednesday email the city has not been updated about Visit Anaheim when asked about Burress’ resignation.

“We have not received any notification or update regarding Visit Anaheim,” he wrote.

After publication Thursday, Mayor Ashleigh Aitken said in a text message she couldn’t comment on the resignation since she hadn’t been contacted by Visit Anaheim about the issue.

Aitken’s father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.

The rest of the city council did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Alleged Criminal Conspiracy 

In a 353-page corruption report released at the end of July, independent investigators – with decades of law enforcement experience – alleged Visit Anaheim took $1.5 million of the $6.5 million COVID bailout they were given by the city council and sent the money to a Chamber of Commerce controlled nonprofit. 

The money Anaheim gave the tourism bureau in March 2020 was from the city’s general fund and was later backfilled by federal COVID bailout money.

Investigators say Burress was part of a conspiracy to divert the money allegedly concocted by former Mayor Harry Sidhu and former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament, both of whom have pleaded guilty to multiple federal crimes.

“The facts showed that then-Mayor Sidhu directed Burress to divert $1.5 million to the Anaheim Chamber’s controlled nonprofit and that Ament instructed Burress to report, if asked about the $1.5 million, that it came from other reserve funds,” investigators wrote. 

“This cover story was created in order to provide some sort of plausible deniability for the unlawful diversion of this $1.5 million,” reads their report.

In September, Sidhu pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about attempting to ram the Angel Stadium sale through for $1 million in campaign support from the team. 

In July 2022, Ament pleaded guilty to a series of federal fraud charges.  

Burress’ name is mentioned nearly 120 times in the corruption report, and investigators say he admitted he completely fabricated the $6.5 million figure the organization said it needed to survive the pandemic. 

Sidhu spearheaded the bailout in March 2020 so Visit Anaheim could book conventions and advertise the Disneyland resort area at a time when the local tourism industry was shut down indefinitely. 

Disneyland would be closed for more than a year.

[ReadAnaheim Council Funds $6.5 Million Bailout To Advertise Disneyland Resort Area]

At the time, former City Manager Chris Zapata objected to Sidhu’s plan saying they should loan them the money instead.

Zapata was fired by Sidhu’s council majority shortly afterwards.

State Auditor Eyes Visit Anaheim

Weeks after the corruption report was released on July 31, State Auditor Grant Parks launched an investigation into Visit Anaheim’s finances at the request of Assemblyman Avelino Valencia, a former city councilman.

[Read: State Auditors to Probe Anaheim’s Rerouting of Federal Funds to Chamber of Commerce]

That audit is expected to be released this winter, according to the auditor’s website.

Click here to read the full article in the Voice of OC

After Anaheim’s Last Mayor Resigned, Four Say They’re the Candidate to Move City Forward

In the wake of a City Hall scandal that could still splash mud on more local leaders, Anaheim’s next mayor will have a big job, but also a delicate one.

Four people think they’re up to it: attorney Ashleigh Aitken and former council member Lorri Galloway (both of whom ran for the office in 2018); political newcomer Dick Lopez, a water systems operator at the city’s wastewater treatment plant; and District 6 Councilman Trevor O’Neil, who as mayor pro tem has been running council meetings since former Mayor Harry Sidhu stepped down in May.

“Given the FBI investigation and what’s happened the last six months, I think there’s going to be a lot of people watching this closely,” former Mayor Tom Tait, whose second term ended in 2018, said of the November election for his old seat.

“I think the public, rightfully so, have lost trust in the city government, trust in doing what’s in the best interests of the people versus the well-moneyed special interests,” he said.

Sidhu resigned amid public pressure when it came to light he was being investigated by the FBI, among allegations made in an affidavit for a search warrant was that he may have tried to pass on confidential information to Angels Baseball officials while the city was negotiating with them to sell Angel Stadium, and in return he allegedly hoped to ask for $1 million in support for his reelection campaign.

Sidhu has not been charged with a crime. His attorney has maintained that a thorough investigation would prove Sidhu did not disclose any secret information, and that his campaign contributions are in compliance with the law.

On the heels of Sidhu’s disgrace came the arrest and subsequent guilty plea of close advisor and former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Ament, who in a settlement pleaded to several counts of fraud in July. In court filings investigators alleged he helped lead a self-described cabal that influenced council decisions in favor of powerful business interests.

With those events as a preface, whoever wins in November steps into the glare of public scrutiny – and takes on a job that, by the time they’re sworn in, will have been vacant for six months.

What Anaheim needs

Anaheim is the county’s most populous city, with about 350,000 residents, and it’s home to two professional sports teams, a large convention center, Disneyland – which, with more than 30,000 employees is the county’s largest single employer – and a surrounding resort district whose hotel taxes are expected to make up more than a third of general fund revenue this year.

“The thing that I like to remind folks is that Anaheim is the 10th largest city in California and so it sits in a very special class of cities” whose mayors play a role in state policy discussions, said Lucy Dunn, who retired as CEO of the Orange County Business Council in December.

Anaheim’s mayor needs to listen to the needs of residents, but also can’t afford to scorn the businesses that create tax revenue to pay for police, parks and libraries, she said.

“My wish is, do not forget what just happened in this city. Remember you have a broad base of representation, and as a city leader your job is incredibly difficult to balance competing interests and to literally raise up Anaheim for everyone,” she said.

With all that to handle, the city’s mayor serves a four-year term for an annual salary of $18,000 plus other benefits. So who wants the job?

Two of the candidates on the November ballot say their experience is what the city needs to get back on the right track after the recent turmoil, which ended up killing the stadium sale.

With Anaheim’s budget of more than $1 billion and more than 3,000 city employees, “now isn’t the time for novices – because of some of the things that have happened at City Hall, there is a learning curve just to go in and understand the city,” said Galloway, who served two terms on the council that ended in 2012.

For almost 40 years, Galloway, 69, has run the nonprofit Eli Home, which provides shelter and services to children and their mothers who are experiencing homelessness, domestic violence or substance abuse. She said Anaheim residents she speaks with are concerned about safety and homelessness in the city, issues she would prioritize as mayor.

O’Neil, 51, also touts his “proven experience” in filling the leadership void left by Sidhu’s resignation. He’s wrapping up a four-year term on the council and also runs a business providing home health care services.

O’Neil said while on the council he supported increasing the ranks of police and firefighters, helped get more than $72 million in pandemic aid to families and businesses, and got the city to take part in a state program that finances turning market-rate apartments into affordable “workforce” housing.

But he’s also been dogged by accusations of coziness with Sidhu and prevailing business interests.

“Yes, I was aligned with former Mayor Sidhu on a number of issues but not all issues, and my voting record speaks to that,” O’Neil said.

Aitken and Lopez said they also would focus on issues such as homelessness and community safety, but they and Galloway all said transparency and rebuilding residents’ trust in their city government will be key.

“As a former federal prosecutor, my No. 1 goal is to really restore people’s faith in a transparent government and ensure they feel City Hall is working for them,” Aitken, 46, said.

She said if elected she would make her schedule public so constituents would know who their mayor is meeting with, and added, “I believe in full disclosure” regarding campaign donations from a person or organization with business in front of the city.

Lopez, 48, said he grew up in Anaheim and was “disheartened” by the recent scandal at City Hall. As a city employee, he’s concerned about the “brain drain” of workers getting trained here and then leaving for other agencies with better pay and benefits, he said.

He’d be willing to consider the ticket tax on Disneyland and other large attractions the council majority just rejected, he said, adding that he’s not seeking to curry favor with the resort district businesses that typically back their preferred candidates with big money.

“We have to make a fresh start,” Lopez said. “That’s what I’m offering here.”

Will they spend?

As the four candidates’ campaigns unfold in the coming weeks, so will another saga: Who will spend money to back their preferred horse.

The Support Our Anaheim Resort Area (SOAR) political action committee – largely funded by Disney – spent more than $350,000 on each of three council candidates in 2018. The PAC reported collecting a total of $1.3 million in 2021, according to campaign finance reports filed with the city.

Aitken, Galloway and Lopez said they have not been supported by big business so far, and while they promised transparency about any contributors, no one explicitly said they’d reject that support if offered.

O’Neil, who was backed by the SOAR PAC in 2018, said he would accept campaign funding from anyone aligned with his political philosophy, “but my ideology and my opinions are certainly not for sale and not subject to influence by contributions.”

Chapman University political science professor Fred Smoller predicted that after the city’s recent embarrassment of making national news, Anaheim voters will be watching the November election closely.

“To me, it’s a change election. It’s post-Watergate,” he said. “People will be looking for new blood.”

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register

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