Why are these Politicians smiling?

Mayor Tom Daly

Mayor Pro Tem Lou Lopez

Councilwoman Shirley McCracken

Councilman Bob Zemel

Councilman Tom Tait

City Manager James D. Ruth

You’d smile, too, if you just received $250,000 (tax free!) worth of box seats from the Walt Disney Co. for your own personal use!

In yet another example of the often incestuously cozy relationship between Orange County officials and the area’s corporate interests, Anaheim city officials this month asked the Walt Disney Co. for two “Platinum” level luxury boxes at Anaheim Stadium this September. Under the terms of the recent lease, the City Council is entitled to the two boxes, which will be used to entertain everyone from family friends to major campaign contributors. The question that begs asking, though, is whether or not accepting the largess of the County’s biggest corporate interest will inevitably lead Council members to look more favorably on whatever new scheme Disney presents them with.

The “Platinum” level boxes that the city requested are typically sold for $125,000 each during the baseball season. They are directly above home plate and offer up to 20 people amenities such as television, a wet bar, and a refrigerator. Anaheim officials have had access to two suites since they were constructed in 1966, but the stadium was leased to Disney in 1996. Obviously, Anaheim officials have decided that free Angel games are just too big a perk to pass up, and are willing to crawl into bed with Disney to keep the free fun rolling.

In addition to the two plush suites, Disney also gives each of the five council members six tickets to every Angels home game. And despite members’ claims that they tend to give their free ducats to charity, county records also indicate plenty of campaign contributors and friends have been enjoying Disney’s giveaways.

As long as the seats are distributed according to an “officially adopted policy of the agency,” there is nothing specifically illegal about them, says the Fair Political Practices Commission, but there’s no denying that it certainly appears to be a conflict of interest.

As long as the Anaheim City Council is deciding on issues that concern Disney, how likely is it that they would vote against any proposal presented from a corporation that’s coughing up a quarter-million dollars in free perks each and every year?

According to the city’s lease with Disney, Anaheim officials get their choice of two suites in the Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum sections, whose prices range from $50,000 to $125,000 per year. The officials’ request for the most expensive boxes they could get their hands on points to just how brazenly beholden to Disney they are willing to get.

In addition to the two luxury suites, the city receives 20 club-level seats and 30 tickets to each and every Angels home game. City officials also receive 10 free VIP parking passes and 30 more free parking places that cost average fans $7 each. As if this wasn’t enough, the City Council and their staff also get 50 complimentary passes to the ritzy Stadium Club restaurant, a place the average Angel fan has never seen the inside of.

The free tickets and passes do not technically constitute an illegal political gift, and in fact, there are other cities whose officials receive similar kick-backs. The Oakland Raiders give away four suite tickets to each Alameda County supervisor for each game, and San Francisco officials receive one 18-seat box for 49er games and one 14-seat box for Giant games. But in neither case do officials get anywhere near what they’ve gotten in Anaheim from Disney. It pays to sleep with the big boys, it seems.

Although most cities’ officials would shy away from such seeming conflicts of interest, in Anaheim they actually feel that their good fortune is deserved. They claim to use the suites for “entertaining dignitaries,” according to Councilman Lou Lopez (although what “dignitary” would be “entertained” by the Angels’ perennially disappointing outings is another question unless they represented the opposing team’s city).

But dignitaries aren’t the only ones who get to bask in the glow of Disney’s lavish gifts. Personal friends and lobbyists also have used the tickets, according to Anaheim city records. For example, attorney and lobbyist Carmen Morinello received 18 free seats in the Anaheim council’s suite for their June 28, 1996 game with the Oakland A’s. Morinello, coincidentally enough, was a major contributor to several city officials’ campaigns, giving $1,000 to Tom Tait, $2,000 to Lopez, and $4,450 to Bob Zemel. Wow!

Lopez claims that Morinello got the tickets because he wanted them for his son’s baseball team. To prove that he just doesn’t get it, Lopez bristled when asked about it. “Mr. Morinello is a person, too,” Lopez was quoted in the O.C. Register. “Does that mean I’ll vote a certain way because he took tickets?” Well, maybe not, but it sure does look like you’ve got a cozy relationship from here, Mr. Lopez.

Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly (whose chief campaign contributor, according to the Orange County Business Journal, is none other than the Walt Disney Company!) also finds nothing wrong with the sweetheart arrangement: “It’s reasonable to have a limited number of tickets for promotional use,” he has been quoted as saying. “Where you draw the line in terms of how many tickets and so forth is up to the individual. It is a reasonable means of making sure the city is well-represented.” Hmmm. But how many of Anaheim’s citizens are really being represented here?

Lopez and Zemel claim that they rarely use the tickets for themselves, giving the vast majority away to charities and young people. They justify their own use by saying that if they refused the tickets, Disney would just sell them and make that much more money.

The question that begs asking, then, is why not write into the lease that Disney has to distribute a certain number of tickets to charities each game? Well, because that would cut the politicians out of the booty-loop, of course! The council members don’t just want the Anaheim Arts Council or the Anaheim Boys and Girls Club to go to the games -- they want them to remember who it was that gave the tickets to them! What a way for a council member to make himself look like a great guy than to give away some expensive gifts to a local charity! It would warm your heart if it wasn’t so transparent and calculated.

In this age of shady campaign contributions, is it truly believable that a major corporation of the likes of Disney would donate such lavish gifts to a group of politicians and expect nothing in return? Not likely. Stay tuned, and watch as the city council continues to bend over backwards to keep their corporate supporters happy.