Two prominent Orange County political leaders resigned within 24 hours of each other amid fallout from a sprawling federal public corruption investigation linked to the proposed sale of Angel Stadium and allegations that a secretive “cabal” controlled Anaheim’s politics.
Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu announced Monday that he was stepping down after being accused of bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering in an affidavit supporting a search warrant application earlier this month.
The announcement in a two-paragraph statement from his attorney came after another prominent figure caught up in the probe, Melahat Rafiei, announced she was stepping down as a member of the Democratic National Committee and state party secretary.
Sidhu’s attorney, Paul Meyer, wrote in the statement that his client denied wrongdoing and decided to resign “to continue to act in the best interests of Anaheim and allow this great City to move forward without distraction.”
The resignation followed the demand by the City Council's six other members that Sidhu, a Republican elected in November 2018, step down.
“What Harry Sidhu has done is reflective of a much deeper systemic problem of political corruption and malfeasance in our city due to the undue influence of money and high-priced lobbyists,” Councilman Jose Moreno said. “Our next step is to determine how do we make decisions and who should make decisions that the public can trust.”
FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins alleged in the search warrant affidavit that Sidhu gave Major League Baseball’s Angels confidential information on at least two occasions during the city’s negotiations with the team over the $320-million Angel Stadium sale — and hoped to get a million-dollar campaign donation from the team. The affidavit also accuses the mayor of obstructing an Orange County Grand Jury investigation into the deal.
During a meeting in December 2021 secretly recorded by Todd Ament, the former head of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce who cooperated with the investigation, the mayor discussed his upcoming reelection bid as well as the Angels: “We’ll push for them at least have a million dollars. You know, for [Angels Representative 1] to say “no” is bad.”
The affidavit doesn’t allege wrongdoing by the Angels. Sidhu, 64, has not been charged.
“A fair and thorough investigation will prove that [Sidhu] did not leak secret information in hopes of a later political campaign contribution,” Meyer wrote in the statement. “The negotiations followed lawful practices used in all major business negotiations. No closed session material, no secret information, was disclosed by Mayor Sidhu. The government affidavit confirms that Harry never asked for a political campaign contribution that was linked in any way to the negotiation process.”
Meanwhile, Rafiei identified herself to local media outlets as the confidential witness referenced in an affidavit supporting a criminal complaint accusing Ament of lying to a mortgage lender. The affidavit said the witness — identified as CW1 — was arrested in October 2019 on a federal bribery charge, but the complaint was dismissed at the government’s request after the witness agreed to cooperate. But no further cooperation is expected.
“I also believe CW1 has omitted material facts to investigators throughout CW1’s cooperation with the FBI, including additional instances where CW1 has offered to pay bribes to elected officials,” Adkins, the FBI special agent, wrote.
In a statement, Rafiei, 44, denied wrongdoing and said she voluntarily cooperated with the investigation because of her patriotism.
“I have never attempted to improperly influence any elected official and I am certain the work I undertook to root out corruption was in the best interest of the people of the state and the Democratic party,” she wrote.
Through the confidential witness, the search warrant affidavit said, the FBI “learned that the City of Anaheim was tightly controlled by a small cadre of individuals, to include Sidhu, a particular member of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, and others.”
Rafiei was born in Iran and left with her family, settling in San Jose in 1983. She is the former executive director of the Orange County Democratic Party and runs Progressive Solutions Consulting, a political firm that worked on previous or current campaigns for Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León, state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan and many others.
In Anaheim, she conducted work for Sidhu's political rival, Democrat Ashleigh Aitken, who lost a bitterly contested race for mayor in 2018 by 478 votes. Aitken, a former federal prosecutor, said she learned in February about Rafiei's role in the FBI investigation and terminated her services. "I have very strong feelings about honesty and transparency,” said Aitken, who is again running for mayor.
Rafiei declined to comment Monday and referred The Times to her attorney, Reuben Cahn. He said he could not comment because “there’s an ongoing investigation. There are potential jury trials out there for Mr. Ament and others.”
Rafiei's biography page on the California Democratic Party website, which had lauded her for helping “get dirty money out of our state party,” was taken down Monday.
In the Ament affidavit, wiretapped phone conversations in late 2020 captured him calling the small group of business leaders, consultants and politicians a “cabal” as they planned a covert retreat at a local hotel. The conversations emphasized the need for discretion and trust to “keep the family close.”
The mayor found out about the federal investigation in February 2020 when Ament, who had started cooperating with the FBI, provided a fake federal grand jury subpoena seeking communications about the stadium deal as part of a government-orchestrated ruse, according to the affidavit.
During the meeting, they discussed whether their conduct with the stadium deal broke the law. Sidhu brought up fraud at one point: The "only time that fraud is involved, in my opinion … [is] if there’s a money exchanged. Right?”
The deal to sell Angel Stadium and surrounding parking lots to a company controlled by Angels owner Arte Moreno had encountered another problem. The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development found the arrangement violated the state Surplus Land Act, which directs public agencies to prioritize affordable housing, parks and open space when selling property. The city denied it.
As part of a stipulated settlement last month, the city agreed to create a fund to build affordable housing. Critics, including some state lawmakers, have attacked the arrangement as a "sweetheart deal" for the Angels.
After the search warrant affidavit became public, the state attorney general sought and received a 60-day delay before an Orange County Superior Court signs off on the agreement, saying it “may be void” and “new and developing information concerning potential violations of state and federal law … are likely to be forthcoming.”
The Angels, however, sent a letter to Anaheim last week giving the city 25 days to grant final approval to the deal. That doesn’t appear likely.
“In addition to what has come to light in the affidavits, the mayor’s resignation just further strengthens the argument for needing to terminate the deal,” Councilman Avelino Valencia said Monday.
Sidhu, the first person of color to serve as Anaheim’s mayor, used a slogan, “Empowering the American Dream,” that in many ways describes his personal story. He came to the U.S. from India in 1974, became a citizen in 1979, worked as an engineer, then built a small business empire in Orange County before entering politics.
The mayor had been running for reelection in November. Whether the campaign will continue isn’t clear. His website — HarrySidhuforMayor.com — showcased smiling photos of the mayor with people across Anaheim and touted his achievements. One photo of Sidhu in his office featured two words in large type: “Ethics. Principled.”
By Monday evening, the website was offline.
For the record:
11:40 a.m. May 24, 2022: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley among the clients of Melahat Rafiei’s political firm, Progressive Solutions Consulting.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.