Will Angels bail on Anaheim after FBI probe into political corruption sinks stadium deal?
ANAHEIM, Calif. – Madelyn Valdes wore her Angels cap, Angels pullover jacket and, while sitting among a crowd of 28,228 at Angel Stadium Thursday night, a look of concern.
It had nothing to do with Shohei Ohtani, the team’s two-way star, giving up two home runs in a 6-3 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. Because despite a recent slump, the Angels are 27-21 entering Sunday and averaging home crowds of almost 32,000 – the third-highest attendance in the American League.
“It’s really nice to have the energy and all of Orange County to come out and support the team now," Valdes, 42, told USA TODAY Sports.
But Valdes, a disabled U.S, Army veteran and Anaheim resident, said she’s worried the Angels might leave town after what has transpired: An FBI investigation into corruption in Anaheim prompted the City Council on Tuesday to cancel the planned $320 million sale of Angel Stadium and the 153 acres of surrounding property to SRB Management, which is led by Angels owner Arte Moreno.
Still no deal after more than a decade of talks between the team and the city – and another setback for Moreno's hopes of building a sports-themed entertainment district on the stadium site.
Harry Sidhu on Monday announced he was stepping down as Anaheim’s mayor, with the FBI accusing Sidhu of planning to solicit at least $500,000 from Angels contingent on the stadium and land sale being completed. He also stands accused of bribery, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering, according to the affidavit.
The Angels have not been accused of wrongdoing by the FBI, and in a statement the team said, “We are currently exploring all of our options.’’
What immediately came to mind for Valdes was Long Beach, the Los Angeles County city about 30 miles west of Anaheim where city officials and Angels executives discussed in 2019 the possibility of the team moving.
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“That would be devastating,’’ Valdes said, with Las Vegas and Nashville seeking an Major League Baseball team and the Angels having previously engaged in talks with city officials in Tustin, a city in Orange County. “This is another kind of rough kick to the old baseball hardgear.’’
Valdes noted the FBI investigation that has at least temporarily derailed the stadium and land sale comes less than three years after Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs died from an opioid-related overdose.
Eric Kay, the Angels’ communications director at the time of Skaggs’ death, was found guilty of supplying drugs to Skaggs. He was convicted of distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances. Kay is due to be sentenced June 28.
The Angels faced no criminal charges, but the club has been accused of negligence in a civil lawsuit filed by Skaggs’ family.
The team said an independent investigation led by a former federal prosecutor hired by the Angeles “confirmed that no one in management was aware, or informed, of any employee providing opioids to any player, nor that Tyler was using opioids."
But while looking out at the field from her seat in the right-field terrace section Thursday night at Angel Stadium, Valdes said of her beloved team, “It just seems like behind the scenes and out here, we operate differently."
Scott Tenley, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles and Orange County, said the federal investigation that followed Skaggs’ death and the current FBI investigation in Anaheim raises questions for the Angels.
“Obviously they recently had a run-in with the criminal justice system themselves on the Skaggs’ death, and there’s probably a lot of scrutiny in how their legal department is keeping them in compliance in all parts of the organization," Tenley told USA TODAY Sports. “I would just think about what is the culture that exists in the organization, what the internal controls in the organization are.
"And while stadium financing and potential drug distribution are very, very different, it just sets the tone of how secretive are employees? Or how much do the individuals at the top of the Angels’ organization not know what’s going on down below that? The Angels might want to investigate and put new policies and procedures into place."
As in the matter of Skaggs’ death, the Angels are defending themselves in the negotiations over the stadium and land sale.
“SRB and Angels Baseball have acted in good faith throughout their dealings with the City of Anaheim with the sole purpose to create a good and fair agreement for the residents of Anaheim and the Angels,” Angels attorney Allan Abshez wrote in a letter sent to Anaheim’s city manager.
But Councilman Jose Moreno said negotiations became “bad faith’’ when the Angels or a consultant working for the Angels received privileged information from Sidhu, the former mayor.
The information included an appraisal of the land that the city council voted to keep private despite objections from Councilman Moreno and a second council member. Moreno said he wanted the information to be public to allay any suspicions that the Angels were getting a sweetheart deal.
“It appears that (Sidhu), on at least two specific occasions, provided City-specific information to the Angels,’’ the FBI affidavit states.
“There are things that could have been worse for the Angels in the affidavit,’’ said Tenley, the former prosecutor. “They could have been listed as people who were engaged in criminal activity."
Tenley cited two aspects of the stadium negotiations that could be problematic for the Angels. The first, he said, is a federal crime known as “honest services fraud."
“So if they’re a participant in any way in the mayor breaching his duty of honest services to the city by stealing confidential information and providing it to the Angels to benefit the Angels, that could open them up to criminal liability," he said. “It kind of turns on, did they know it?’’
Council member Moreno said it should have been clear the information was confidential because the City Council had discussed the matter extensively during open sessions.
Tenley said the Angels also could face criminal charges if the team was aware Sidhu expected a campaign contribution for a role in helping them secure a favorable stadium and land sale. Sidhu, who was elected mayor in 2018 after campaigning to keep the Angels in Anaheim, faced re-election this year.
In the affidavit, a transcript of a phone call the FBI said it recorded between Sidhu and an informant shows Sidhu claimed an Angels representative asked him, “What can I do for your election?’ I said, 'Let me finish your deal first, and then we'll talk about that.' "
But in the affidavit, FBI agent Brian Adkins wrote, “I am unaware of any information confirming that Angels Representative 1 has, in fact, been solicited by (Sidhu) in the matter described herein, or is otherwise aware of Sidhu’s stated intent to do so."
After initially indicating it would push the city to honor the planned sale, the Angels indicated they have changed course.
“Given that the City Council unanimously voted to cancel the stadium land agreement, we believe it is the best interest of our fans, Angels Baseball and the community to accept the City’s cancelation,’’ Marie Garvey, a spokeswoman for the Angels owner and his SRB Management company, said in a statement. “Now we will continue our focus on our fans and the baseball season."
Garvey declined to comment on whether the team still is exploring all of its options.
Sue Laverty, sitting next to her husband at the Angels game Thursday night, said she used to ride her bike to Angel Stadium when it was being constructed. The stadium, which seats a capacity of 45,050, opened in 1966 and is the fourth-oldest stadium in Major League Baseball behind Fenway Park (1912), Wrigley Field (1914) and Dodger Stadium (1962).
“My girlfriend and I used to ride our bikes from the other side of Anaheim and ride around the parking lot and eat lunch and then ride back home,'' Laverty said. "I would hate to see the Angels move out of the city, but I’m not real fond of them being called the L.A. Angels now either. They’re Anaheim to me and they always will be.''
The day after Anaheim’s council members voted to kill the planned sale, however, Long Beach officials sounded ready to renew the courtship.
“If the Angels are interested in continuing those initial discussions, Long Beach would reengage in those discussions and seek direction from the City Council,’’ read a statement issued by the city manager.
Under a cloud of uncertainty, the Angels season and the FBI investigation are unfolding simultaneously.
“It’s heartbreaking because you want to know that everybody’s doing the right thing," said Valdes, the military veteran and diehard Angels fan. “But I love my city and I love my team. So I’m not going to abandon them."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Angels' future in Anaheim in doubt after FBI investigation sinks deal