By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
The Orange County grand jury has launched a preliminary investigation into potential criminal or unethical conduct at the Great Park government operation, sources tell the Weekly.
The development must have startled Larry Agran, the Irvine city councilman and chairman of the Great Park Corp. board. Irvine's thin-skinned political boss learned about the probe last week and has already contacted a prominent, well-connected defense lawyer in hopes of thwarting a full-scale investigation.
For years, Agran has claimed he's the model of rectitude, viciously attacking his critics. In recent years, the critical circle has broadened beyond conservatives to longtime personal friends who say Agran, once a nationally prominent progressive, has morphed into the boss of a Chicago-style political machine. Besieged by allegations of back-room deals, many of the details coming from disaffected members of his inner circle, Agran said he was the victim of a "vicious" and "false" smear campaign. Investigative reports pounding Agran appeared in the Weekly, the Los Angeles Times and TheOrange County Register, as well as on local radio.
Agran's response? "We have some of the worst media in the country here," he told a KUCI radio host last month.
"I'm flabbergasted that [Agran] won't tell the truth," Mark Petracca, a UC Irvine political-science professor and former Agran confidante, told the Weekly in September 2004.
Because Agran and his Democratic political allies control the Irvine City Council, they also control the powerful $400 million Great Park board, the public corporation overseeing construction of a park at the abandoned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
Agran runs both the council and the park board with a style that borders on dictatorial. At the Great Park alone, for example, Agran pushed for numerous no-bid contracts, granted massive contracts to political allies—including a lavish legal-consulting contract for $441 per hour, voted to ignore questionable contractor billings, thwarted public access to key documents and scheduled public meetings at times the public was unlikely to attend. When board member Dick Sim resigned over what he called Agran's mismanagement of the Great Park, Agran said Sim, the ex-Irvine Co. planning executive he once hailed as visionary, was too old and incapable of working in "the public arena."
There never are apologies from Agran. He's worked energetically to design a corporate reporting structure that limited the ability of fellow board members to question his conduct. Meanwhile, he did nothing to prevent padded taxpayer-funded payments to a nonprofit under his control, coordinated expensive city mailers with the campaign messages of his "Great Park" political machine, worked secretly to give himself a publicly funded $200,000-per-year job once he leaves the council and helped his campaign contributors position themselves to receive government contracts at the Great Park.
If the grand jury does its job, Agran may well expect to be questioned closely about the Hometown Voter Guide (HVG), a slate mailer run in past elections by Ed Dornan, his best friend and top political operative.
Dornan funded his operation in part by soliciting campaign contributions from businesses with matters pending at Agran's City Hall, orchestrated smear campaigns against Republican opponents such as Christina Shea and former Councilman Mike Ward, and funneled hundreds of thousands of potentially illegal dollars into the political system for Agran's machine.
The grand jury—which should be applauded for its initiative—faces at least one serious hurdle in its investigation: timing. Dornan died last month of natural causes. The Agran confidante likely took with him a long list of embarrassing secrets.