By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Photo by Jack Gould For decades, Irvine earned its reputation: you paid for your safe streets and good government in the coin of searing boredom. Local officials enjoyed cozy relationships with real-estate developers, and some rabid conservatives hated the city's progressive politicians, but the sleaze factor remained relatively low. While crooked characters flourished in Santa Ana and Huntington Beach, Irvine was Mayberry.
That changed last year thanks to one man: Larry Agran, the Irvine councilman once hailed as the hope of Orange County liberals and a 1992 Democratic presidential candidate. As Weeklyreaders know, Agran conducted city business in secret and tried to steer lucrative, no-bid government contracts to personal friends, campaign advisers and political contributors.
Now there's evidence that suggests Agran's political machine—which controls not just the city and its budget but also the $400 million Orange County Great Park public corporation—is at it again.
According to multiple sources as well as documents obtained by the Weekly, Roger Faubel—more on him shortly—contacted an executive at Cox Communications in late June and "strongly suggested" the company hire him and Agran's longtime friend and adviser Edward Dornan to lobby on its behalf with the city of Irvine's cable-contract committee.
On the surface, there might not seem anything wrong with a simple phone call. Or even for a local businessman to solicit a lobbying gig. But Agran's critics say the scenario stinks.
The city's cable committee is headed by Agran and his ally, Mayor Beth Krom. Faubel is a veteran government lobbyist and a longtime Agran friend and contributor. He's also good friends with Dornan, a retired community-college English professor. Dornan is Agran's best friend, closest adviser and top fund-raiser. He was the subject of a 2004 Weeklyinvestigation into Agran's two-year, secretive effort to give a no-bid, multidecade monopoly to a small power company. That company, ENCO Utility Services, had used Dornan as a lobbyist, though Dornan has no expertise in utilities. In a heated public meeting last fall, Agran—then mayor—claimed he had no clue his top adviser worked for ENCO or stood to reap as much as $1 million in the deal.
In the wake of the ENCO revelations, Dornan—whose nickname is "The Knife"—largely faded from public view for months only to emerge entangled in the Cox cable deal. Sources say Cox officials, who had been hoping to resolve a number of issues with the city, including an extension of their city contract, were startled by the Faubel-Dornan offer. They wondered if Agran would retaliate if the pair wasn't hired. Besides, the company had been using former Irvine Councilman Barry Hammond, a Republican and Agran critic, as a consultant for years. In July, Cox officials decided not to hire Agran's allies.
That decision was followed by unsettling news. On Aug. 1, city officials sent a 10-page letter to James M. Leach, the Cox vice president who declined to hire Faubel and Dornan. Leach had been asking the city to renew the cable deal since last November. Now, just weeks after Faubel's call and 17 days before the cable deal was set to expire, acting City Manager Sean Joyce told Leach the city might kill the Atlanta-based company's contract.
In an Aug. 16 letter to Joyce, Leach expressed "serious disappointment" with the city's tactics, renewed his requests to resolve issues, but said firmly the company has done nothing wrong. Cox will defend its franchise in court if necessary, he said.
"Unfortunately, due to the city's inaction and tactics, we are almost to a point where Cox Communications can no longer wait for the city to act in a manner consistent with its obligations under the current franchise or federal law," Leach wrote.
In a phone interview with the Weekly, Faubel admitted he had called Leach and suggested Cox hire him and Dornan. "I called Jim Leach and left a message in hopes of getting him to make a donation to a skate park in Lake Forest," said Faubel. "I represent Lake Forest. But I did say, 'If you ever need help, hiring me and Ed Dornan might be something to think about.' It was just an idea I had. I never heard back from Jim."
Faubel says an arrangement with Cox would have been aboveboard and beneficial to the company. "I was with Southern California Edison for 24 years," he said. "I know how to negotiate franchise agreements with cities. And Ed, he's pretty influential with the City Council."
Faubel said he "didn't know anything about that letter," and said any connection between his call and the Aug. 1 threat would be "unethical and criminal."
"Even though it's unethical, I wish I had power like that," he joked. "I'd be sitting in Puerto Vallarta with a drink right now."
But shouldn't residents be alarmed when two of Councilman Agran's close friends try to win consulting jobs with a company struggling to do business with the city?
Faubel said he's been friends with Leach for years; this wasn't just a lobbyist cold-calling for new business. But, he concluded, "I'm a businessman, and my job is to get and retain business. I'm an open supporter of Larry's. There's nothing wrong with that. Mud is being thrown here, and it looks like I'm in the middle."