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
You don't have to understand election law—and God, who'd want to?—but it'll help you enjoy this delicious irony: Irvine political boss Larry Agran, the guy who holds himself out as personal morality's last, best hope, funneled illegal campaign contributions totaling about a million bucks into three recent city elections. And (wait for it) he used that money to send out political mailers pounding his opponents for their crooked, unscrupulous, low, cheating ways—hitting the all-caps button to label one of them "NO LONGER FIT" to carry out the public's business.
Two days after our Jan. 25 story, Agran began his crisis management in the Los Angeles Times. He ridiculed the Weekly's key source, UC Irvine professor Mark Petracca, who says there was no difference between Agran's campaign committee and the supposedly independent Hometown Voter Guide (HVG) that blasted Agran's political opponents. Though illegal, Agran ran both committees, according to Petracca—who would know because he was, at the time, an Agran ally and political adviser. He says he witnessed the councilman drafting HVG's highly charged attacks on Agran's political opponents.
In the Jan. 27 Times, Agran—often his city's mayor, now a councilman and chairman of the $400 million Orange County Great Park project—called Petracca a "loser" motivated by unspecified "sour grapes."
That's how he handled the messenger. As for the message, he would say only that he is a "careful" veteran politician.
It was a carefully crafted non-denial denial. A day later, Agran was less meticulous. Speaking to The Orange County Register's Tony Saavedra—the last reporter to the story, the first to claim credit for it—Agran reportedly "denied submitting text [to HVG] about foes." Saavedra's hamfisted reporting probably had Register readers thinking this was nothing but a question of he said/she said over an obscure point of election law. But original drafts of HVG political mailers obtained by the Weekly show Agran did exactly what Petracca charged.
To take but one example, those documents show that in the 2000 city election, the councilman secretly wrote HVG mailers attacking then-councilman Dave Christensen. When he finished a draft, he faxed it to Petracca for editing. "Here's the letter, Mark," Agran wrote on the draft of a letter that was supposed to be signed by Petracca. "It needs some work, especially the last paragraph. Call right back."
What voters ultimately saw was a message signed by Petracca, delivered by HVG and paid for with funds collected without limitation by the slate mailer for four propositions: No on G, Yes on H, No on 38 and Yes on 39. Agran's key role in the communication was hidden. Nor did Agran use any of his own campaign funds for the mailer.
In the 2000 election, Irvine candidates could accept no more than $320 from each contributor. By using HVG, which accepted $5,000 and $10,000 contributions from single sources, Agran dodged contribution limits and overwhelmed Christensen at the mailbox. In the past five years, records show, the onetime Democratic presidential candidate has augmented his city campaigns with more than a whopping $950,000.
To measure Agran's hypocrisy, consider the theme of his illegal, anti-Christensen mailer: ethics.
"Irvine City Councilman Dave Christensen has violated the public trust," Agran wrote. "He is NO LONGER FIT to serve in elected office." The flip side of the four-page, glossy mailer read, "There are many honest, ethical candidates running for Irvine City Council. But Dave Christensen isn't one of them."
Petracca says Agran exercised the same control over HVG in 2002 when it targeted Agran's biggest council nemesis: Christina Shea, a Republican.
For diehard Agran fans who refuse to see any wrongdoing here, just ask the politician you trust. At the City Council's Jan. 10 meeting—three weeks before Petracca's revelation—Agran angrily disputed the Weekly's reports on HVG shenanigans as "reprehensible and offensive false charges."
"Let me just correct one thing that's very important for the public record," said Agran. "The Hometown Voter Guide was not operated by me. It is illegal—I underscore that—it is illegal for an elected official to operate a voter guide or slate mailer."
Based on our reporting, the public record is now clear. The supposedly independent HVG, which was established by Agran's best friend and top strategist, shared Agran's campaign themes, contributors, staff, research, lawyers, printers, consultants and office space; raised nearly $1 million to pay for illegal mailers against Agran's opponents; circumvented campaign-disclosure rules; lured a fake Republican into the 2004 race to steal votes from the legitimate GOP candidate; and threatened investigative reporters with legal action on Agran's behalf. We have the councilman, unaware of Petracca's looming revelation, saying—no, underscoring—that it would be illegal for any candidate to operate a slate mailer like HVG. We have Petracca acknowledging that Agran was secretive about his operation of HVG. And now we have the final piece of the crime: Agran's own handwriting on HVG hit pieces.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas: What else do you need?
Smoking Gun (document above): Agran denies writing Hometown Voter Guide hit pieces on opponents, but here's his handwriting and initials, "LA," on a document launching a 2000 stealth attack on his Republican challenger, Dave Christensen.