A former city leader with questionable ties to high-level execs at Disney and other organizations was found dead in his home, and the discovery has set into motion an investigation into his death and reignited interest in the ongoing FBI investigation into the city’s dealings in business with corporate giants.
Anaheim Police officers arrived at the home of 43-year-old Jordan Brandman in Orange County, California, just before 8:00 p.m. on Friday, September 29, in response to a request for a welfare check. Upon entering the home, officers found Brandman unresponsive. According to authorities, there were no signs of foul play.
“It is with sorrow and sadness that we learned of the passing of former Council Member Brandman,” Mayor Ashleigh Aitken said. “Any loss of life in our city is a tragedy, and my heart goes out to all who knew Jordan and who are now coping with the news of his passing.”
As of the time of this publication, Brandman’s cause of death is not known, and an investigation into the details surrounding his death is being carried out by the Coroner Division of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. It is ongoing. And while his passing has saddened his community, it is also raising some eyebrows as it comes in the wake of a massive public corruption scandal inside the City of Anaheim’s government–a scandal that has been under FBI investigation since 2019.
Brandman’s Alleged Role in Corrupt City Politics
Brandman’s death comes just months after the Los Angeles Times reported about the former councilman’s dealings with lobbyists and corporate brass in the City of Anaheim who swayed his votes on tax breaks and developments that benefited The Walt Disney Company at Disneyland Resort and other businesses. The associations between Brandman and lobbyists were questionable at best, as many of them are also the subjects of an FBI criminal complaint about “ringleaders of a covert group that appeared to exert significant influence over the City of Anaheim.”
Jordan Brandman was elected to Anaheim’s City Council in 2012 “on a wave of campaign cash from Disney and other corporate interests,” per the LA Times. He served his first term through 2016. The addition of Brandman to the City Council secured a majority in favor of tax subsidies for big businesses, including Disney, and Brandman routinely voted in favor of those for tax breaks, including a massive deal between the City of Anaheim and Disney that would grant the House of Mouse a 45-year extension on its already-in-place tax exemption. Per the Times:
In 2015, Brandman voted for a deal in which Disney promised to expand its resort, and the city agreed that for the next 45 years, any revenue obtained from taxing Disneyland’s admission tickets would go back to the company. The next year, Brandman was part of the council majority that approved a $267 million tax break for Disneyland’s planned luxury hotel.
Disney’s Long History of Favors From the City of Anaheim
Anaheim’s deal with Disney extended the existing entertainment tax exemption for Disneyland Resort, which had been in place since 1996, in exchange for investments in Disneyland Park and Disney’s California Adventure Park. Under the terms of the deal, Disney agreed to complete a $1 billion expansion of the parks by 2024 in order to enjoy the extension for 30 years. Disney agreed to make an additional $500 million investment into the parks that would extend the tax exemption for another 15 years after that.
The deal was approved by Anaheim City Council members by a vote of 3-2, with Jordan Brandman casting his vote in favor of the deal.
More recently, however, Brandman had defended his support of the deal with Disney, saying he used his leverage as the swing voter to get Disney to promise union jobs, wages, and benefits for construction workers assigned to build Disney’s next luxury hotel.
In November 2018, The LAist published an article that alleged that “Disney wants a company-friendly city council, and they’re spending big to make it happen.” The post goes on to connect the dots between Disney’s interests and the City of Anaheim’s business operations:
Anaheim’s economy and identity have long been tied to Disney, even though Disneyland and the surrounding Anaheim Resort district occupy just 5 percent of the city’s territory. Disneyland employs 30,000 people, and the city depends heavily on visitors to the Southern California theme park.
The resort district generates more than 50 percent of the city’s general fund revenue — a projected $195 million [in 2018] — though critics point out that the city also spends $105 million to support and promote the resort district. But some residents and city leaders have come to question Anaheim’s relationship with the company.
An Unsuccessful Bid for Re-Election Means Trouble for Disney
In 2016, Brandman was defeated in his bid for re-election by just 72 votes, and that defeat wasn’t only Brandman’s. Disney, too, was defeated, as Brandman’s replacement created a majority in the council who were then opposed to continuing Disney’s tax breaks and subsidies–and for other major corporations as well. It was a defeat that Disney wouldn’t take lying down.
In an effort to regain its once-powerful influence in Anaheim, Disney funneled more than $1.2 million into a political action committee (PAC) that supported Brandman’s re-election in 2018, as well as the election of two other candidates who were sympathetic to Disney’s goals in Anaheim. Disney also supported the election of Harry Sidhu, who was voted in as Anaheim’s mayor in the same election. Brandman was re-elected as well.
But according to Jordan Brandman, during a series of tell-all interviews with The Los Angeles Times, the new mayor began to exercise a “near total authority” in decisions made by the council, and power brokers managed the mayor and other council members. Among those power brokers were the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce president, Todd Ament, and Jeff Flint, a lobbyist who represented the Anaheim Angels and Disney.
Corruption Scandal in Anaheim Goes Public
The FBI’s inquiry into corruption within the City of Anaheim began in 2019 but wasn’t made public until 2022. The Bureau filed a criminal complaint against Ament and Flint, alleging the two were “ringleaders of a covert group that appeared to exert significant influence over the City of Anaheim.”
Federal investigators say the Chamber president and the lobbyist for Disney arranged secret retreats for power brokers in the city and that the two were so powerful in Anaheim that Flint once wrote a script for Mayor Sidhu to read about an upcoming bond measure, and the mayor conceded.
Sidhu has since resigned after accusations of misconduct in a separate FBI filing. He has denied any wrongdoing. Chamber president Todd Ament ultimately agreed to plead guilty to four felony counts: submitting a false tax return, lying to a mortgage lender, and two counts of wire fraud. Disney lobbyist Jeff Flint denies any wrongdoing.
But FBI affidavits detail powerful alliances between city leaders in Anaheim and power brokers in the city and allege that a covert group of power brokers “wielded significant influence over the inner workings of Anaheim’s Government.”
Brandman Allegedly Ousted by the ‘Cabal’
According to Brandman’s account to the LA Times, however, not every council member was part of the unelected power-wielding “cabal,” allegedly led by power brokers like Disney’s Flint and others. Brandman said he believed that Flint and Ament had decided not to trust him and that he did not receive an invitation to a subsequent retreat where Flint and Ament, among others named in the ongoing corruption investigation, would be in attendance.
In April 2020, Flint told Brandman how he wanted him to vote in regard to ousting then-City Manager Chris Zapata, according to the late councilman’s account earlier this year. Brandman said Flint told him that the vote would decide who was and wasn’t on the “team,” allegedly referring to the power broker-led cabal in the city. Though Brandman liked Zapata and said they worked well together, he feared repercussions to his professional career if he opposed the council majority and ultimately cast the vote Flint wanted.
“It’s a vote I’m not proud of,” Brandman said.
Brandman went on to describe events that took place in the following years–events that included a text messaging scandal involving the former councilman, his failing physical and mental health, and a demand by those in power for Brandman to resign from his position on Anaheim’s City Council, a demand with which he ultimately complied.
“I played by the rules,” Brandman said through tears during an interview with The Times. “And what did they do when I was down, when I was a team player? I’m nothing more than game fowl for the slaughter.”
Concerns About the Councilman’s Physical and Mental Well-Being
Some of those involved in the meeting in which Brandman was told he needed to step down subsequently said they did so in support of Brandman and out of concern for his health.
In a statement given to The Los Angeles Times, Carrie Nocella, Disney’s director of external affairs at Disneyland and a close friend of Brandman’s with whom he shared the same birthday and birthday celebrations, said she considered Brandman “a friend and colleague within the Anaheim community” and said that the meeting held with him before his resignation was “out of care and concern for his physical and mental well-being.”
Nocella continued, saying she was in support of the recommendation “for Mr. Brandman to resign from council and focus on recovering and obtaining the medical help he desperately needed.”
At this time, it is not known whether Brandman’s physical or mental health played a role in his death.
The City of Anaheim Conducts an Internal Investigation
Following the revelation of alleged corruption within the City of Anaheim and affidavits from the FBI in 2022, city officials requested an internal investigation be conducted by investigative firm JL Group, the findings from which were released on July 31, 2023.
A 353-page report found a “potential criminal conspiracy” and alleges that former Mayor Harry Sidhu and former Chamber president Todd Ament were involved in influence peddling. The report further found that “$1.5 million of $6.5 million in COVID-19 recovery funds sent to Visit Anaheim was diverted by Visit Anaheim to an Anaheim Chamber of Commerce-controlled nonprofit organization, and ‘there was a conspiracy between’ Sidhu, then-Anaheim Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Todd Ament, and Jay Burress, the CEO and president of Visit Anaheim.”
In August, current Anaheim mayor Ashleigh Aitken began holding meetings with an eight-member committee to review the report from JL Group in the internal investigation, promising to chart a new course in Anaheim.
“This committee and I will begin meeting to review and prioritize the report’s findings, invite public input, and bring recommendations forward to the council,” Aitken said in a statement in August. “I know my colleagues on the City Council will also have ideas and insights into how we can improve our processes and procedures.”
“Together,” Aitken vowed, “we will chart a course toward a more honest and transparent government.”