Anaheim City Councilman Trevor O’Neil stood outside the Honda Center for a video promoting rock legends KISS and their End of the Road farewell tour stop at the venue in February. “Now, I’ve always been a rock-&-roller at heart, and so I hope you’ll join me here at the Honda Center,” said O’Neil, playing the role of hype man. “This show will be the ultimate celebration for those who’ve seen them and the last chance for those who haven’t. Paul, Gene, you need another axeman onstage with you, I’m your guy!”
He then swung an electric guitar over his shoulder and skillfully shredded through the solo of the KISS classic “Rock and Roll All Nite.”
Despite his best rehearsal, O’Neil didn’t join KISS onstage during their Feb. 12 show. But as a councilman, he did give himself four free concert tickets, worth $520 total, to bid the band goodbye, marking them as income for tax purposes under Anaheim’s ticket policy. Newly elected in November, O’Neil had assigned himself 17 tickets by March to various events, including Anaheim Ducks games, a Harlem Globetrotters appearance, Disney on Ice and, of course, KISS in concert—altogether $2,205 in public assets, a pace that, if continued, would top out around $16,900 by the end of his four-year term. But he dished out many more entertainment and sporting-event tickets to political supporters, city staffers and nonprofits.
By doing so, O’Neil is just the latest to join the best-kept secret in Anaheim politics.
Unbeknownst to many, Anaheim City Hall is awash in tickets thanks to a management agreement with the Honda Center last amended in 2011 and a 1996 Angel Stadium lease agreement currently extended until the end of this year. As far as the Honda Center goes, the city had exclusive use of two suites through June 30, 2019. Now, the municipality retains the rights to one suite and 14 “best available” terrace-level tickets. As landlord of Angel Stadium, the city is entitled to two suites; the Angels also provide 20 club and 30 nonpremium seats per game to Anaheim at no cost, save for playoff or World Series games.
The city adopted its current ticket policy in January 2009, a year before unreported ticket gifts became a scandal in Southern California thanks to then-Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. As LA Weekly first broke the news, Villaraigosa took tickets for everything from courtside seats to Los Angeles Lakers basketball games to the Academy Awards ceremony during an unreported five-year, 80-event escapade totaling at least $50,000.
With the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) changing California laws in December 2008, tickets distributed by public officials that are reported on an 802 form and are under a city policy outlining public purposes aren’t considered gifts nor subject to state regulations capping gift-giving amounts. By February 2016, all agencies in the state had to post their policies and 802 forms online but problems persist. That same year, news reports surfaced about Oakland elected officials attending Golden State Warriors playoff and NBA finals games at Oracle Arena under dubious reasons such as to “oversee the facilities.” A public ethics commission followed with an April 2017 report finding that the city’s ticket system had “significant problems.”
Where does Anaheim, host city to both a hockey and a baseball team, stand?
In compiling this special report, the OC Weekly reviewed 1,539 ticket-disclosure forms between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019. The data is divided between the final months of former mayor Tom Tait’s council majority and the first months of Mayor Harry Sidhu’s current majority. In answering the question of who’s giving and getting tickets, “Ticket Masters” takes the first comprehensive look at how political supporters, bloggers, labor bosses, business leaders and council members themselves are treating City Hall like will call.
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Members of Anaheim First, a little-known civic-booster group, donned blue shirts outside the City National Grove of Anaheim on March 5, 2019. That’s when Sidhu gave his first State of the City address. During the speech, Sidhu announced that under his tutelage, Anaheim would aspire to invest $250 million into its neighborhoods during the next decade.
“We need to partner with Anaheim residents so that they drive the investment,” said Sidhu.
That’s where Anaheim First comes in. Formed a year ago by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Visit Anaheim and the Anaheim Community Foundation, the group organized its first 30 members across the city’s six council districts. From the onset, the city declared Anaheim First to be “nonpolitical.” But when reviewed, much of the initial membership’s campaign contributions, endorsements and other political activities supported the mayor and other council members backed by resort corporations.
Five days after incorporating as a nonprofit, Anaheim First came before the City Council on April 16. During the meeting, a 5-2 majority voted to donate a $250,000 matching pledge so the group could contract a neighborhood-needs study tied to the mayor’s initiative—but not before meeting resistance from skeptics on the council and in the community.
“Anaheim First, if it had been a legitimate thing, would have recruited from the entire city and not just from [Support Our Anaheim Resort (SOAR)] and select groups,” said Wes Jones, an Anaheim resident, during public comments.
Insinuations were made during the meeting that free entry to the Happiest Place On Earth is granted to the supporters of the mayor’s agenda and what the Weekly has dubbed the “Resort Elite,” the coalition of Disneyland, hoteliers and big-business interests that has, since the mid-1990s, maintained an almost iron grip on City Hall through favored politicians.
“The members of SOAR do not get free tickets to Disneyland,” countered councilwoman Lucille Kring at the meeting. “The members of Anaheim First also do not get free tickets to Disneyland. They get zero. This is from the love of their heart. These are volunteers.”
Perhaps the Mouse House doesn’t provide them free passes, but under Anaheim’s ticket policy, council members do generously reward people for volunteerism—and Kring knows it. Nine days before the vote, she gave Anaheim First employee Leslie Swan four suite tickets to an Angels game for that stated reason.
And that’s the problem, according to Duane Roberts, a vocal critic of Anaheim First. The longtime activist first stumbled upon the city’s ticket system while investigating a nonprofit fundraiser in 2017 for which council members donated tickets. From there, Roberts continued to review ticket forms. With Anaheim First, the watchdog noticed something else, deeming the system the “Rosetta Stone” of the city’s politics. “There seems to be a pattern where people who are currently linked with Anaheim First have received thousands of dollars’ worth of tickets over the years,” says Roberts. “Some of Anaheim First’s core members have contributed money to the campaigns of certain politicians. Then, if you look at tickets, in some cases, they’ve received the same amount of money back at face value. It’s basically an exchange and a way in which politicians can quietly reward their supporters without getting attention.”
O’Neil, the first council member elected from a newly drawn Anaheim Hills district, gushed with enthusiasm—and free tickets—about a month into the job. On Jan. 16, he offered tickets to an array of events at Honda Center and Angel Stadium for those serving on Anaheim First’s District 6 Committee and administrators of the Anaheim Hills Buzz Facebook group. “Thank you to all of you for your contributions to Anaheim,” O’Neil wrote in an email obtained by the Weekly. “You are part of what makes Anaheim Hills such a great community.”
Anaheim First member Anthony Novello took O’Neil up on his offer and requested four tickets to Monster Jam, a monster-truck exhibition at Angel Stadium in February. “I hope you enjoy the show!” O’Neil wrote.
Novello may have been a “no name” ticket taker if not for being an Anaheim First board member. Aside from those duties, Novello serves as the business manager and financial secretary for Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 582. He allied with the Resort Elite in supporting tax-break subsidies for hotels with project labor agreements to hire union workers and fighting against last year’s living-wage measure for resort workers.
In the Weekly’s review, Novello claimed 26 tickets with a total face value of $4,880 for various events from resort-friendly council members O’Neil, Kris Murray and Kring. Ernesto Medrano, a business representative of LA/OC Building & Construction Trades Council, did Novello 10 tickets better in the same time span. An Anaheim First member from a neighboring district, Medrano took 36 tickets from resort-friendly council members, mostly to Angel games, tallying a total face value of $6,980. All the “public purposes” cited for the tickets? “Attracting or rewarding volunteer service.”
But it’s not just labor lieutenants from building trades who are being rewarded by council members along politically loyal lines.
In total, 11 Anaheim First members and their relatives received at least 152 free tickets between July 2018 and June 2019. That amounts to $25,290 in public assets being handed out to people now involved in the group—a statistic that remained obscured from public debate when Anaheim First, thanks to a vote by the same council members doling out those tickets, received $250,000 to contract out a neighborhood-needs study.
Councilman Jordan Brandman distributed 24 tickets worth $3,620 to Daniel Fierro, an Anaheim First member who worked on his campaign, and his wife/senior policy aide, Felicia, mostly under her name. “I’ve known and worked with Daniel, in particular, since 2013—long before any affiliation with Anaheim First,” says Brandman. “I gain nothing as an individual or policymaker from his affiliation with Anaheim First and fail to see how giving him a few tickets could possibly influence my decisions as a council member.”
When Anaheim First’s board of directors, newer members and others are factored in, the tickets continue to pile up. O’Neil gave board member Amelia Castro suite tickets for Ducks and Angels games this year. Todd Ament, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce as well as an Anaheim First board member, received 20 tickets to various events—including a Marc Anthony concert at the Honda Center.
A recent full-page ad in the Orange County Register’s community newspaper Anaheim Bulletin announced four new Anaheim First members, including Natalie Meeks, a former public-works director and current city commissioner. On May 24, O’Neil gave Meeks four suite tickets to see the Angels. As with many others, she received them under the volunteer exception.
“Anaheim First draws its members from residents who are very active in giving their time, energy and service to their community,” says Xochitl Medrano, the group’s director of community engagement, “so it is not surprising that service has been recognized in this fashion.”
Medrano, Ernesto’s daughter, declined to provide a full membership roster. Going by what’s publicly available, Anaheim First-related ticket-taking bulges to a grand total of $33,630.
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Although council members aren’t able to distribute tickets to Disneyland, that doesn’t mean the Mouse House doesn’t factor into the ticket system—albeit indirectly. Take the case of former councilwoman Murray. In the past, critics pointed to Disney contributing to her campaigns. She, in turn, proved to be a reliable vote when Disney sought a 30-year gate-tax ban and $267 million in hotel-tax breaks. The councilwoman helped terminate both tax-rebate agreements last year at Disney’s behest.
Murray’s close friendship with Carrie Nocella, Disneyland Resort’s political lobbyist, also came under scrutiny. Anaheim’s ticket system deepens the details of their political relationship.
The pro-Disney politician filed Statements of Economic Interests (Form 700) during her final term on council and reported gifts from the Walt Disney Co., including $376 to attend the Disneyland Christmastime Candlelight Ceremony on Dec. 2, 2017. That same year, she also took a gift of three tickets valued at $93 to attend a May screening of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
In August 2017, Murray gave Tom Nocella, Carrie’s husband and a local attorney, suite tickets for an Angels game. She also gave him 10 Angels tickets for “attracting or rewarding volunteer public service” between July and September of last year alone.
But there’s room for one more on the Murray-Go-Round.
Before leaving office in 2016, Brandman reported gifts from Disneyland Resort, including $291 to attend the Mouse House’s Diamond Anniversary Celebration that year and $84 for a film screening. Brandman returned to the council following last year’s elections and reported another gift from the Disneyland Resort—this time a $155 dinner just days after being sworn in.
Months later, Brandman gave Tom Nocella $900 in luxury-suite tickets to an Angels game in April.
“Tom is a longtime Anaheim resident,” says Brandman. “Like all other council members, I regularly recognize numerous residents, community groups and city employees by behesting them tickets to their Angel Stadium and Honda Center.”
Murray didn’t respond to requests for comment by press time.
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Despite its innocuous name, Anaheim Blog squawks as if it’s the local parrot of Resort Elite politics. It was started in 2012 by Matt Cunningham, whose past includes running the conservative blog Red County and working as a press shill for Republican Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (who’d later become Anaheim’s mayor) and the U.S. Senate campaign of former congressman Darrell Issa (R-Vista). Anaheim Blog’s introductory post billed itself as a platform aimed to “support those individuals and issues representing what made Anaheim a great city.”
These days, that looks like a strident defense of Sidhu and his allies on the council. Whether on an emergency homeless shelter, Angel Stadium negotiations or Anaheim First, Cunningham writes about the mayor with an adoration usually reserved for state-sponsored scribes, and that includes invective against his political opponents, be they on the council or in the community. The blogger may not be a hack paid by the city, but he sure does collect on the next best thing: tickets to Anaheim’s big attractions.
Sidhu gave Cunningham four tickets on June 20 to catch Jeff Lynne’s ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) world-tour stop at the Honda Center. Of course, there’s no “public purpose” to cite for his blogging efforts. Instead, the mayor signed off on $480 worth of tickets on account of “attracting or rewarding volunteer public service.” Cunningham didn’t respond to Weekly requests for comments, but the city did. “It was for his volunteer work on Taste of Anaheim,” says city spokesman Mike Lyster on Sidhu’s behalf. The event is produced by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, whose political action committee supported Sidhu.
Next month, Cunningham is set to enjoy another night of live music thanks to his easy access to Anaheim’s public assets. When Elton John’s farewell tour comes through the Honda Center on Sept. 10, O’Neil—who enjoys favorable coverage on Anaheim Blog—ensured Cunningham won’t miss out. According to city documents, O’Neil has tickets on hold for him when Rocket Man says goodbye to Anaheim.
Cunningham’s name also shows up on disclosure forms from other council members. Murray gave the resort-friendly blogger with a checkered credibility four tickets to see Hall & Oates last year. She also gave him four tickets to check out Twenty One Pilots in concert in 2017 for volunteerism. Kring gave him four more tickets to the same show, only for “economic and business development.”
Whatever the public purpose, detractors can call all the tickets given to Cunningham by council members over the years by what they are: government handouts.
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Many progressives in Anaheim consider Jose F. Moreno to be the conscience of the council on an otherwise unabashedly pro-Disney dais. The Democrat rails against pay-to-play politics and corporate subsidies, especially as the city attempts to negotiate a new Angel Stadium lease with 150-acres of its best real estate surrounding it. But as ticket-disclosure forms show, Moreno isn’t immune to the system’s seduction.
Before being elected to the City Council, Moreno took tickets to see Art Laboe’s Chicano Soul Legends show in 2015 from then-mayor Tom Tait, an ally in the fight for single-member districts and against hotel subsidies. Now a ticket master on the council, Moreno doles out access to entertainment and sporting events to political supporters all the same. Moreno doesn’t have an “apparatus” at his disposal like Anaheim First—a group whose core members from his downtown Anaheim district all opposed his re-election last year—but he is building a machine through the city’s school districts.
Moreno and his Anaheim Unified High School District (AUHSD) allies took in a little March Madness at the Honda Center this year. Laws prohibit public officials from giving out tickets to others that, in turn, will be given back to them. Moreno marked a single $125 ticket as income under his name for the NCAA West Regional. He then gave AUHSD Superintendent Michael Matsuda and trustee Al Jabbar one ticket apiece.
The public purpose cited by Moreno for a March Madness night out? “Attracting or rewarding volunteer public service.” Matsuda and Jabbar received tickets for other events from Moreno on separate occasions.
Former Orange County Labor Federation executive director Julio Perez rounded out the single-ticket bunch; Perez had been fired from his post the year before following a #MeToo investigation on alleged sexual misconduct on the job. When sexual-harassment accusations against Perez first surfaced in October 2017, Moreno gave the embattled union leader Jay-Z tickets worth $800. That was just days after the Labor Federation publicly announced it would be conducting an investigation.
Another area of concern regarding ticket distribution is allowing elected officials to channel thousands of dollars in public assets to people who’ve donated to their campaigns. Where Moreno is concerned, his manos are in the masa. In the Weekly’s review, seven donors to his re-election campaign got tickets, sometimes on more than one occasion. Most illustratively, former Stanton mayor Salvador Sapien made three contributions totaling $1,100. Last August, Moreno assigned six luxury-suite tickets valued at $1,350 to Sapien for an Angels game.
Moreno didn’t offer a comment in response by press time.
In all, the campaign contributors in question gave Moreno $3,300 during his re-election campaign. His ticket distribution to them tallied a close match at $3,495.
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As fallout from Oakland’s ticket-system abuses continues, the Coliseum Authority’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in April to adopt stricter limits on tickets given to politicians. The new policy limits the board’s access to just five events per year to be given to community and charitable organizations. Not only that, but a reporting form must also be completed at the time of the distribution.
That’s not the Anaheim way. “The 802 forms are finalized after the event is over and are then posted online,” says Lyster. “The requirement in the ticket policy is for the form to be posted within 30 days after distribution.”
At the city level, Oakland hasn’t yet acted on the ethics commission’s recommendations as the Warriors are headed to San Francisco, the Raiders are moving to Las Vegas and the Athletics are looking to develop a privately financed ballpark. According to the ethics commission report, new limits on the number of tickets that can be used by an elected official, staffer or a third party should be adopted. An administrator should also withhold tickets from them until a completed 802 form is received. Lastly, the city has to do better in giving the public easier access to ticket-distribution data, preferably in a downloadable CSV format.
While Oakland lags, FPPC commissioners made adjustments to ticket rules in May, including provisions prohibiting disproportionate use by issuing authorities and requiring written reports for people who attend events for the purposes of overseeing and inspecting facilities. Earlier, an Oakland councilwoman tried to rally for an outright ticket ban, but the effort failed. “We should seriously consider banning the mayor and city council from having authority whatsoever to distribute tickets,” Roberts argues for Anaheim. “At the very least, there should be restrictions on how many tickets any one group or person receives each year. There also needs to be better documentation with regards to why these tickets are being provided; it can’t just be checking off a box. There needs to be more accountability and scrutiny.”
Under Sidhu, ticket-form filings are up. Together, all city officials with such authority are averaging 144 forms per month since he took office or about 20 more per month than under Tait. Those dedicated to groups under the nonprofit exception remain roughly the same at 40 percent. But the real trouble with Anaheim’s system comes from its most popular clause: “attracting or rewarding volunteer public service.”
In the year reviewed, 55 percent of all forms filed by council members were for tickets distributed under that rationale. It’s a flexible “public purpose,” especially since “attracting” means the recipients didn’t actually have to give up their spare time to help Anaheim—although watching an Angels game from the city’s luxury suite might inspire them to do so one day. The city is by no means alone in having such language in its policy. Costa Mesa, Pasadena, San Diego, Sacramento and numerous cities across the state share the same wording.
“The city of Anaheim adopted its policy in 2009 and became an early pioneer in this process,” says city spokeswoman Erin Ryan. “At that time, our policy became—and continues to be—the model for many other cities throughout the state.”
But other cities in California have stricter rules for distribution. As Oakland’s public ethics commission noted, Santa Clara declines tickets entirely from Levi’s Stadium, a major venue that hosts the San Francisco 49ers. Both San Diego and Sacramento limit the number public officials can receive.
Reform is possible if residents see a need for change. The ticket system has, so far, evaded public criticism; its data is drowning in a sea of PDF files as opposed to an easily accessible spreadsheet. “Most people have no clue that this political-patronage system exists,” says Roberts, a rare critic. “They have no idea that thousands of dollars of their public assets are being freely given away to supporters of politicians, both Democrat and Republican. Everybody is abusing it.”