A Boy Named Sue

Irvine Mayor Agran attempts to muzzle his critics with legal threats

For months, Irvine Mayor Larry Agran has fought charges that he steered lucrative government contracts to political allies. The firestorm erupted in August after revelations that Agran backed a monopoly utility deal for a company using as its lobbyist Ed Dornan, the mayor's best friend, campaign fundraiser and top political strategist. Never mind that Dornan--a retired community college English instructor--has no utility expertise: Agran first denied and then defended the arrangement as best for Irvine residents. Later, state records proved that the mayor's friends and top contributors established shell companies to grab contracts for Great Park construction, where the public will spend more than $400 million.

But throughout the controversies nobody has accused the mayor of trying to benefit financially from his city hall maneuvers.

Until now.

According to multiple sources, Agran secretly sought to create a deal that would make him president of the city's Great Park development at an annual salary in excess of $200,000. Agran kept his plan from the public, but went so far as to explore possible legal hurdles by asking City Attorney Joel Kuperberg for a confidential opinion. That opinion is protected from disclosure by attorney-client privilege.

"Larry is termed-out as mayor this year and it was his plan to leave the council but keep majority control with his allies who would in turn okay his plan to serve as executive director of the Great Park," said a source who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation by the mayor. "He wanted the city to fund his job."

If true, Agran's dream is now improbable, but only because of fate.

For most of the last four years, the mayor operated something rare in Orange County: a liberal political machine. His three-vote council majority dominated public meetings, issued contracts, made appointments, crafted policy and spent the city's $100 million annual budget. Now, Agran has just two votes: his own and Councilwoman Beth Krom's.

Earlier this year, Councilman Chris Mears, an Agran ally of two decades, announced publicly that he could no longer stomach the mayor's ethical lapses. He said the rift dates back to 2003 when Mears told Agran he would not seek to replace him as mayor or run for re-election. Mears ceased automatically voting with the Agran bloc and the mayor's three-vote majority collapsed.

"Larry was furious," said Mears, chairman of the Great Park Corporation, the entity responsible for developing the old El Toro Marine base. "I'd wrecked his plan. He's a man who has completely lost his perspective on what it means to be a public servant. He wanted to be called 'president' of the Great Park. Think of all the work that needs to be done to give the residents of Orange County a wonderful park, and Larry's worried about his title and making himself money. It's scary."

Along with Mears, two other prominent Irvine Democrats--UCI professor and Irvine Planning Commission chairman Mark Petracca, and businessman Mitch Goldstone--wrote an open letter to Democrats last month voicing their frustration with Agran's conduct and encouraging Dems to vote for the mayor's Republican rivals. Mears followed up recently with another letter detailing Agran's post-council employment plan.

"I'm angry as hell along with other Irvine residents who learn the truth about the fleecing of City Hall," he wrote before encouraging support for Republicans Mike Ward, Greg Smith, Mike House and Steven Choi. "I'm sure I will have honest disagreements with them in the future, but I don't question their honesty and their integrity."

The mayor, who maintains he's done nothing wrong and is the victim of a smear campaign, refused an interview for this story.

While multiple sources confirmed Mears' version, they adamantly refused to speak on the record citing a climate of fear at city hall. "Larry's the type who will try to destroy you if he thinks you aren't on his team," said one source, who agreed to speak to the Weekly away from city hall. "He takes everything very personally."

Indeed, Agran has a well-known temper as well as a proclivity for bullying critics. For example, he's privately spread vicious personal rumors about Mears. He's also attempted to intimidate the local media. After the scandals broke in August, the mayor and Dornan sent notices to the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, Irvine World News and the Weekly. The letters stated that lawyers would be "closely monitoring all future articles" in anticipation of taking "legal action."

It's not uncommon for newspapers to receive threats from angry politicians, but Agran's attacks went further. In the middle of the campaign season, he also sent two legal notices to council candidate Smith. In a three-page Oct. 19 letter, the mayor's son Kenny, a lawyer, suggested that Smith faces "liability for defamation and libel" and ordered him to "immediately cease and desist" from disseminating news articles about his father's scandals.

Councilman Ward, who is campaigning to replace Agran as mayor, also received two threats. In an August 24 letter, Agran's legal team told Ward "we are placing you on notice" for speaking to the Weekly and Times about the mayor's troubles. To drive home their point, they wrote "we reserve the right to take such legal action as may be appropriate."

"It's easy for Mr. Agran to send threats," said Ward. "He and his son are lawyers so it costs them nothing to attack us, but I view the letters as a sign that the mayor is desperate to keep the truth from the public. The thought of losing power must be frightening to him."

rscottmoxley@ocweekly.com

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