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Photo by Davis BarberLast week's crisis-management effort by scandal-plagued New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey should have inspired Irvine Mayor Larry Agran. McGreevey revealed he's gay, acknowledged having an extramarital affair with a man and, in a move that scored big polling points, announced he'll resign rather than further disgrace his office. Many quickly hailed the governor's apparent candor, even though McGreevey didn't mention that he also showered the object of his affections with government favors.
For the past three weeks, Agran has contemplated how he might defuse a potentially career-ruining scandal of his own. This one doesn't involve sex; this being Irvine, the controversy isn't even sexy. It surrounds a proposed municipal utility deal.
But like the McGreevey mess, Orange County's lone progressive mayor stands accused of abusing his power to help enrich a friend.
Official records show (and Agran's City Council colleagues say) Agran steered a lucrative deal to an energy company with troubling and, until recently, unpublicized ties to Ed Dornan. There's no mystery that representatives of ENCO Utility Services would use Dornan—a former longtime English instructor at Orange Coast College—as one of their energy lobbyists. He's Agran's closest political adviser, campaign fund-raiser and confidante. Dornan could pocket more than a million dollars if the city approves the deal, according to former Agran ally Councilman Chris Mears.
The Orange County Republican Party is already betting the scandal is big enough to drive the mayor from office. Agran, a man who has made a career out of publicizing the hypocrisies of his opponents, gets to figure his way out of the mess—fast.
Following McGreevey, Agran might out himself, acknowledge a gay extramarital affair and resign. Such sleight of hand worked for McGreevey: a sex-obsessed media quickly lost sight of McGreevey's myriad other—and arguably more serious—scandals involving government malfeasance. Though Agran's not gay, he could pull a McGreevey, acknowledging that his sincere bid to create a public-private utility was, well, "easily misunderstood" by the electorate and resign. That would take Agran out of the race—and with him countless other scandals now rumored at Irvine City Hall. The tsunami of Republican money building for the November race would collapse weakly, and progressives might still survive the coming elections.
Agran, apparently, will have none of this.
In his 1999 book, Truth to Tell, former Bill Clinton aide Lanny Davis offered post-Lewinsky advice on how best to weather a budding scandal: tell the truth, Davis said. "Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself." McGreevey adopted two-thirds of that guidance. Agran has adopted none.
Instead, Agran, a Democrat, is using Dick Nixon's failed 1974 playbook. Let's give the mayor's PR strategy an acronym: IDOA—ignore, deny, obfuscate and attack.
In the initial stage, Agran ignored all Weekly interview requests about Dornan and ENCO, apparently hoping our Aug. 4 exposé would die anonymously. That didn't happen. Similar embarrassing articles soon appeared in two other newspapers. That was the beginning of the second stage, when the mayor decided to talk with Jenn Stewart of the Irvine World News. He denied the importance of the Dornan-ENCO relationship. Instead, Agran—a Harvard-trained lawyer and veteran politician who sought the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination —posed as an untarnished public servant. "It's my job to get the best possible decision for the city and its residents" in the energy pact, he told Stewart in an Aug. 5 story. "You'll see there's nothing suggesting that I am doing anything illegal, unethical or self-dealing."
If Agran was frustrated by the mounting attention, it only got worse. Reporter Jean Pasco of the Los Angeles Times called. She wanted an interview for her article that would appear in her paper's widely circulated Sunday edition ("Ex-Comrade Questions Agran Ethics," Aug. 8). The mayor shifted tactics a third time. He agreed to an interview, this time acknowledged the Dornan-ENCO tie, but resorted to pure obfuscation. Dornan wasn't anyone special, Agran told Pasco. "What's corrupt about a private individual having a business relationship with a private firm that may or may not do business with the city?" he asked.
Mears, who was Agran's closest ally on the council until the Dornan-ENCO revelations, has the answer: plenty.
"Larry has become a political boss consumed by an insatiable ego and is so driven for more power that, sadly, he doesn't know how utterly foolish he looks," said Mears. "Dornan is merely a 'private citizen'? That's pathetic. Ed Dornan is Larry's right-hand man. If a Republican tried that excuse, the old Larry would have pounced without mercy."
Such blunt talk may have put Mears, who decided not to run for re-election, in Agran's crosshairs. "I know it's hard to understand, but Larry sees himself as the victim here, and he wants to punish Chris for betraying him," said one source familiar with the dispute.
Personal attacks on Mears are indeed under way. The Agran camp has spread several nasty rumors. In one ridiculous scenario, the mayor's ardent supporters are alleging that Mears is mentally unstable.
Cheap shots might feel good, but they won't solve Agran's looming PR problem: his own waning credibility as he and his slate of Beth Krom, Sukhee Kang and Debbie Coven seek to control the City Council after the November elections. There's probably not a more educated electorate in California than Irvine's. Will they accept Agran's cries of innocence, or will they be sickened by another scheme to give a pal a seat at the public trough?