Disney power broker is part of a ‘cabal’ pulling the strings in Anaheim, FBI records show
May 24, 2022 4:46 PM PT
The employee of the firm, called “Company A” in the affidavit that’s part of a federal public corruption probe, helped script a statement read by an elected official before the City Council voted to issue bonds and provided input on whom to invite to a covert retreat for community powerbrokers.
Company A is Disneyland Resort, according to a person familiar with the investigation, and the employee is Disneyland Resort Director of External Affairs Carrie Nocella.
Though neither the company nor Nocella have been accused of wrongdoing, their connection to the wide-ranging investigation that led to Harry Sidhu resigning as Anaheim mayor Monday underscores the immense influence the company wields in the city of 350,000 with a budget fueled by millions of visitors each year to the Disneyland Resort.
The wide-ranging investigation includes the sale of Angel Stadium and allegations of bribery involving Anaheim’s mayor.
The company has long played a dominant role in Anaheim politics. Some current and former council members, local activists and a past mayor say Disneyland Resort has parlayed its influence into lucrative tax breaks at the expense of city residents and bankrolled friendly politicians with generous campaign donations. Disney has pushed back against such criticism, arguing that the resort provides the city with an important economic engine and is a job creator.
But the court filing provides an unusually detailed look inside how the company works to shape events away from public view.
Councilman Jose Moreno said Disneyland’s influence over the city was obvious to anyone paying attention.
“That would be the worst kept secret in town,” he said.
In response to questions from The Times about its identification as Company A, Disney said in a statement that, “We have seen media reports of the complaint and no authorities have reached out to us about it.” Nocella, who deleted her Facebook and Instagram accounts last week, declined to comment.
Company A came to light in a 99-page affidavit by FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins in support of a criminal complaint accusing Todd Ament, the former head of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, of lying to a mortgage lender.
The agent wrote that Ament and an unnamed political consultant “were the ring leaders of a small group of individuals who met in person to discuss strategy surrounding several matters within Anaheim — matters that were often pending, or soon to be pending, before the Anaheim City Council,” Adkins wrote.
The affidavit described Company A Employee — Nocella — as one of the group’s ringleaders “to some extent.”
In advance of a secretive gathering of Anaheim business leaders, consultants and politicians in December 2020, Adkins alleged Company A Employee provided input to Ament and the political consultant about who to invite.
Details about the consultant in the affidavit match Jeff Flint, chief executive and senior partner at FSB Public Affairs, who has represented Disneyland Resort. Flint, who announced last week that he was taking a leave of absence as CEO, denied doing anything wrong.
During a wiretapped phone call on Nov. 30, 2020, between the consultant and an Anaheim politician identified as Elected Official 1, the politician asked if two colleagues had been invited to the retreat.
“No, I talked about it with Todd [Ament] and [Company A Employee],” the political consultant said. “We felt like for this first one we’ll kinda keep things big picture and stick with um, with, um, [Elected Official 4] and [Elected Official 3]. … But, um, [Elected Official 2’s], you know, I think he’s on the team, but he’s just gonna take some management because he’s got competing pressures.”
The subject line for the email invitation to the gathering from Ament’s assistant read: “Retreat 12/2020.” The event was scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the JW Marriott in Anaheim with a “social hour to follow upon conclusion.”
The Anaheim City Council halts the sale of Angel Stadium and surrounding property on the same day mayor Henry Sidhu resigned amid a scandal.
Anaheim City Councilmen Stephen Faessel and Trevor O’Neil along with City Manager Jim Vanderpool have publicly acknowledged attending the retreat.
“As I remember, the major focus of this meeting was on how to get our economy back open, our residents back to work, the distribution of essential products,” Faessel said. “This was exactly the kind of meeting you would have expected City leadership to have at that moment. Sadly, I’ve read with serious concern how this meeting has been depicted. Apparently others may have gone into this with a different perspective than I did.”
The intercepted phone calls detailed in the affidavit depicted the meeting as anything but ordinary, as organizers fixated on including trustworthy people — “family members only” and keeping “the family close” — while debating whether to invite a City Council member described as a possible “double agent.” Ament, at one point, called the group a “cabal.”
According to the affidavit, Nocella and Elected Official 1 were scheduled to attend the retreat.
Almost four months later, Adkins wrote, the political consultant drafted a script about issuing bonds — with input from Company A Employee and Ament — for Elected Official 1 to read at the City Council meeting on March 23, 2021. The item authorized up to $210 million in bonds to make up for pandemic-related revenue shortfalls.
Hours before the meeting, the political consultant texted the assistant for Elected Official 1: Company A “asked to delete reference to [Company A’s parking lot]. Will send to you.”
Sidhu, then mayor, was the only elected official who spoke extensively on that agenda item during the meeting before it passed. Reading from prepared remarks, he referenced Disney in glowing terms: “I believe Disney will continue to invest in Anaheim, strengthening our destination and ensuring Anaheim remains the long-term premier tourist attraction of the West Coast.”
But Company A Employee wasn’t impressed, texting the political consultant that the mayor “reads your script so poorly,” according to the affidavit.
“Lol,” the political consultant replied. “He doesn’t practice.”
Records from an FBI probe show how business interests run the Orange County city home to Disneyland and the Angels.
Sidhu was linked to the scandal in a separate affidavit in support of a search warrant by Adkins that became public last week. It alleged he 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 sale of Angel Stadium — and hoped to get a million-dollar campaign donation from the team. Sidhu denied wrongdoing. He has not been charged.
In a statement Monday announcing the resignation, Sidhu’s attorney, Paul Meyer, wrote: “A fair and thorough investigation will prove that [Sidhu] did not leak secret information in the hopes of a later campaign contribution.”
Disneyland Resort has long enjoyed the benefits of its relationship with Anaheim’s government.
City leaders agreed in 1996 to issue $510 million in bonds to finance, among other projects, construction of the $108-million Mickey & Friends parking structure. The resort keeps the parking revenue, and Anaheim will transfer ownership of the garage to Disney once the bonds and $1.1 billion in interest are paid off.
In 2015, the City Council approved shielding Disneyland from any potential tax on ticket sales for 45 years, a massive revenue stream that could have generated an estimated $1 billion or more in revenue for the city. Disneyland promised to build the park’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge expansion — which opened in 2019 — and another major project in the future. City officials granted the company a $267-million tax rebate in 2016 for a luxury hotel.
Disneyland abandoned the hotel project in 2018 and asked the City Council to cancel its 45-year ticket sales tax protection. The resort did so as city voters were set to approve a measure requiring any resort business receiving subsidies to pay its workers a living wage.
Harry Sidhu said in a statement released by his lawyer that he did nothing wrong.
At the same time, Disney has directed significant campaign funds to influence city politics. The company contributed $1.3 million in 2021 to the Support Our Anaheim Resort political action committee, a group composed of business owners, community leaders and residents, according to campaign finance filings for the non-election year.
In a profile on the University of the Pacific’s website in March, Nocella, who graduated from the McGeorge School of Law in 2002, recalled working at Disneyland Resort in high school and college long before assuming her current role.
“The best part about my job is being able to sit down with an elected official or a policymaker and share with them our position on certain issues and what we’re doing in their communities,” Nocella said. “That’s important to be successful.”