Ex-Anaheim mayor refuses to publicly disclose emails amid FBI corruption investigation

Former Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu at his home.

Former Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu is refusing to publicly disclose emails and texts on his personal accounts that he used for city business before he resigned earlier this year amid a federal corruption investigation.
(Karen Tapia / Los Angeles Times)

Embattled former Anaheim mayor Harry Sidhu has refused to publicly disclose emails and text messages from personal accounts he used to conduct city business, calling into question how thoroughly a city-commissioned investigation can probe a corruption scandal tied to the aborted sale of Angel Stadium and a self-described “cabal” that allegedly steered city politics.

In emails obtained by The Times, Sidhu’s criminal defense attorney claimed the former mayor’s past communications about city business on private devices were no longer public because he has resigned and invoked his client’s 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.

You are reading: Ex-Anaheim mayor refuses to publicly disclose emails amid FBI corruption investigation

Public records experts say the refusal flouts California law, leaves a critical gap in public understanding of behind-the-scenes actions that upended the political establishment of Orange County’s most populous city, and could encourage other government officials to use private accounts to conduct official business and avoid public scrutiny.

“Just because Sidhu kept those records on his personal devices doesn’t make them his,” said Paul Clifford, who has litigated public records cases on behalf of journalists as senior attorney for the Oakland-based First Amendment Project. “They are, by law, public records that the government has the right to get back.

“It’s going to encourage public officials to go ahead and do business on their private emails, especially if they’re anticipating no longer being part of the government. That would create a disastrous situation for the public to know what its government is up to.”

Sidhu resigned in late May after an FBI affidavit supporting a search warrant that targeted him was unsealed. The affidavit, which detailed him using personal email for city business, alleged there was probable cause to believe he had committed honest services fraud, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and other crimes. Anaheim subsequently received several requests under California’s Public Records Act for emails and text messages Sidhu sent or received while mayor. Though city officials searched Sidhu’s work email for responsive records, the law requires him to do the same on personal accounts.

But Sidhu’s attorney, Paul Meyer, refused in a June 22 email to City Atty. Robert Fabela.

“On the advice of counsel,” Meyer wrote, “despite the fact that we believe no federal or other criminal violations will ultimately be filed, or proved, against [Sidhu], under the established theory that the 5th Amendment was created for the protection of innocent persons ensnared in a criminal investigation, he asserts his 5th Amendment privilege against self incrimination to the city’s request that he produce emails and texts from his personal accounts.”

Karl Olson, a public records litigator at Cannata, O’Toole, Fickes & Olson in San Francisco, pointed to a California appellate court ruling in 2007 that specifically cited “corruption” as a reason the public has the right to access government records. A decade later, in 2017, the California Supreme Court ruled that communications by public officials on private accounts are disclosable public records.

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“What [Meyer] is saying is the more crooked you are, the less right the public has to know how crooked you are … and if that’s the law, that would just totally turn the Public Records Act on its head,” Olson said.

Meyer said Monday he had no further comment on the matter.

Anaheim hasn’t received any records from Sidhu’s personal accounts since the FBI probe became public, said city spokesman Mike Lyster, and isn’t aware if any responsive records exist on them.

“We are in a unique situation and will continue to evaluate the matter,” Lyster said. He added: “Beyond an exchange of letters … the city has not taken legal action. It is our understanding a federal investigation is ongoing and we have not made any determination at this time.”

Sidhu has not been charged with any crime and, through Meyer, has maintained his innocence.

The affidavit by FBI special agent Brian Adkins sought permission to review records from Sidhu’s personal email and cellphone. It cited an email Sidhu sent from the account to political consultant Jeff Flint — who represented the Angels — and then-Anaheim Chamber of Commerce president Todd Ament in July 2020 “in an effort to assist the Angels” during negotiations for the city to sell Angel Stadium and surrounding parking lots to the team.

During a meeting in January, Sidhu assured Ament that emails between the three men wouldn’t make their way to an Orange County grand jury investigating the stadium deal. Ament — who later accepted a plea bargain for wire fraud, making false statements to a financial institution and submitting a false tax return — secretly recorded the conversation at the behest of the FBI.

Sidhu told Ament the communications were on his “private emails” and that he “erased everything,” according to the affidavit.

In a footnote of the affidavit, Adkins wrote: “There may have been additional items related to the Target Offenses … that SIDHU may have overlooked and thus failed to delete, and therefore are still maintained in the SUBJECT ACCOUNT and on the SUBJECT PHONE.”

The Times obtained more than 5,000 pages of records from Anaheim in response to public records requests in the months since the affidavit became public. There isn’t a single email or text message sent by Sidhu among them, though numerous emails are CC’d to his personal account.

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In one request filed in late May, The Times sought emails or text messages that Sidhu or his chief of staff sent or received regarding an episode detailed in a second affidavit targeting Ament. The FBI alleged Flint wrote a script that Sidhu read during a City Council meeting in March 2021. Multiple drafts were sent to Sidhu’s assistant, the affidavit said.

“Despite a diligent search,” the city responded, “the city is unable to locate records that fall within the scope of your request.”

The response added that the search efforts were continuing, though no responsive records have been produced.

Three days later, Fabela emailed Meyer.

After the city attorney requested Sidhu search his personal accounts, Meyer said he needed to review “all such materials that are already in possession of the city.” Fabela said they could provide Meyer with records from the former mayor’s city email account, “but I don’t understand how that impacts Mr. Sidhu’s obligations to search his personal devices and accounts.” Anaheim eventually gave Meyer thousands of pages of documents the city compiled in response to public records requests for information related to key players in the probe like Ament and Flint.

In August, the Anaheim City Council voted to retain JL Group, a Laguna Niguel-based investigative firm, to probe the scandal. The work is estimated to take six months and cost $500,000 to $750,000.

The company, which declined to comment on specifics of the investigation, is examining whether Sidhu or City Council members directed city “business and/or activities based on campaign contributions,” city staffers were involved in “illegal and/or unethical behaviors in the context of the Federal investigations,” and city officials engaged in “communications/meetings” that violated the state’s open meetings law.

In a written update to the Anaheim City Council before Tuesday’s meeting, retired Orange County Superior Court Judge Clay Smith, who is overseeing the city’s inquiry, said it is in the “early stages” as investigators have started interviewing relevant individuals and are “actively working to identify documents which should be analyzed.” Smith wasn’t available for comment, according to his case manager.

James Wedick, a retired FBI special agent who spent decades investigating public corruption and consults on white-collar criminal inquires, believes Anaheim needs to obtain Sidhu’s communications as quickly as possible if the investigation will be credible. He described any emails sent from Sidhu’s personal account as a “crucial link.”

“You’ve got plenty of information to go get those records,” Wedick said.

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