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Photo by Jack GouldWhen fellow Orange County Great Park board members recently demanded explanations for questionable spending, bizarre secrecy and no-bid contracts, park chairman Larry Agran dismissed their concerns with psychoanalysis—and a baseball cliché.
"Let's get real here," said Agran, typically dismissing his critics as delusional. "This [project] is about focus—never taking our eye off the ball and getting the job done."
From the comfort of a 5-2 board majority, Agran asserts that it's "irresponsible" for "naysayers" to question his increasingly dictatorial management when citizens should link arms in "celebration" of his "successful" leadership of the $401 million public project.
Agran's missteps have already alienated one high-profile board member—former Irvine Co. exec Dick Sim fled the board in May, saying he could no longer tolerate Agran. And at a July meeting, board members Christina Shea and Steven Choi exposed a series of financial irregularities on bills submitted by Forde & Mollrich, a political strategy and lobbying firm tied to Agran. The Weekly revealed last month ["Great Park With All the Fixin's", June 24, and its follow-up "Agran Dispenses Great Pork", July 8] that Agran planned to give the firm a no-bid, $1.3 million public relations contract—including a whopping, taxpayer-funded $50,000-a-month retainer.
The Forde & Mollrich deal violated at least the spirit of government contracting rules, but Agran had an analogy for that too: "If you hire a surgeon for brain surgery, you don't ask to bid the job in the middle of the surgery."
Critics say the Forde & Mollrich contract serves Agran far more than the park. They point out that the publicly funded PR deal coincides with upcoming 2006 city elections in which Agran's political machine—the one he slyly named "The Great Park Team"—will be challenged. Election strategists say the park will be the top campaign issue. Under Agran's direction, Forde & Mollrich's job is to convince residents that current Great Park management is visionary, progressive and a "model" of propriety.
But the newly constituted Orange County Grand Jury should pay attention to the latest developments. As detailed by Irvine World News reporter Jenn Stewart, records show that Forde & Mollrich may have over-billed the city by double on costs for Great Park mailers.
It's difficult to know for sure because Agran and the private firm shroud the public-relations spending. When it originally demanded payment, Forde & Mollrich didn't submit supporting evidence of its expenses. After Choi asked for more information, the firm handed over documents but deleted the identity of the sub-vendor and the sub-vendor's prices. Based on a series of estimates Choi received for the same work from different companies, the overcharging could top $40,000. It also appears that Forde & Mollrich padded their postage bill for the mailers by $10,000, according to postal records reviewed by the Weekly.
Earlier this year in Los Angeles, executives at a public relations firm tied to then-Mayor James Hahn were indicted for padding government bills. But Agran refuses to acknowledge any mischief in his Forde & Mollrich deal: "I feel the people of the city of Irvine not only got their money's worth," he told Stewart, "they've gotten much more."
Agran—who frequently meets in private with Forde & Mollrich executives—didn't support his assertion. But it's clear that taxpayers have gotten an increasingly ugly scandal for their money. All four major local newspapers have now blasted Agran's ethical lapses at the Great Park. A politician since the 1970s, he wasted no time employing a strategy to end the Forde & Mollrich firestorm.
"It's so remarkable to me that this discussion is taking place today," Agran said at the July council meeting. "We still have difficult days ahead."
The ominous line—delivered from prepared notes—was meant to suggest that Shea, Choi and the public should rally behind his command. The reason? In Agran's fevered imagination, the Park vs. Airport War, dead two years by any legitimate analysis, remains alive.
Agran isn't entirely alone. During the same meeting, his stonewalling on Forde & Mollrich won support from Beth Krom, a park board member and Irvine's first-term Democrat mayor. Krom remains under the delusion that she's popular, although her power is the result of an Agran plot that put a fake Republican candidate, Earl Zucht, on the 2004 ballot. The trickery split GOP votes, gave Krom her seat and Agran's political machine control of the park and the City Council.
Even if Krom won't publicly admit she's a mere Agran foot soldier, her shameless promotion of Agran's agenda hints that she knows her place. Now is not the time to explain Great Park financial irregularities, she says. She wants public adulation ("We should be applauded"), offers empty philosophy ("We're thinking holistically"), and reinforces Agran's war spin with trademark hysteria: "I think it would be foolish if we cease to watch every little cockroach because the fact is there will continue to be people looking for ways to unravel what we're doing," she said.
The word "cockroach" was illustrative of Krom's civic mindedness: her critics, those who haven't joined her as an Agran cheerleader, are vermin.