Photo by Jack GouldThe buzz in Irvine these days isn't about boosting SAT scores, traffic woes or draconian community-association rules. It's about Mayor Larry Agran's precipitous fall. Arguably Orange County's leading liberal during the past three decades, Agran's been a feared politician in his city, even though Republicans there far outnumber Democrats. Reasons for his reign aren't a mystery. He's been intelligent, tireless, an ethical crusader, a visionary of some public-policy issues and a prodigious campaign fund-raiser. He's also sly. It's a testament to his mastery of self-promotion that until recently the Great Park could have bore his moniker.
But now Agran is more likely to find his name on an indictment than atop the entrance of the much-anticipated park. In the past two months, the mayor and onetime Democratic presidential candidate has lost credibility thanks to a series of ethical blunders, including:
•Agran tried to steer a lucrative city monopoly contract to ENCO Utility Services, an energy company with undisclosed ties to Ed Dornan, his top political strategist, personal confidante and campaign fund-raiser.
•Agran pushed for a taxpayer-funded deal that could have illegally funneled $20,000 to the Great Park Conservancy, a private organization largely under his control.
•Agran advocated Great Park landscaping projects at the same time Dornan and other Agran campaign contributors quietly created a maze of corporate entities designed to win multimillion-dollar landscaping contracts at the park.
•And most recently, Agran and Dornan were caught secretly—and possibly illegally—directing a Cal State Fullerton telephone poll that spread lies about mayoral candidate Mike Ward and other Irvine Republicans. The lies—for example, that Ward wants a casino at the Great Park—mirror attacks Agran and fellow Democrat Beth Krom have planned for the election. The poll also contained biased questions tilted toward giving ENCO and Dornan their energy pact.
In response to the scandals, Agran—a lawyer by training—has either avoided interviews, crafted carefully worded denials or outright lied. At the council's Sept. 14 meeting, citizens said they were alarmed that people conducting a partisan poll claimed it was on behalf of the city of Irvine. These citizens demanded to know who was behind the poll. The mayor sat quietly. Later, he denied any knowledge or participation in the survey and then made a ballsy, deceitful move. He speculated that the Irvine Co. had sponsored it.
The ruse didn't last long. Thanks to a speedy investigation by Cal State Fullerton President Milton A. Gordon, we now know what Agran knew all along: Dornan, his top adviser, secretly promised that one of his companies would pay for the $16,308 poll and the bill was to be sent to the Los Angeles address of Agran's campaign treasurer, Renita Smith. The mayor isn't answering any more questions about his poll.
Forget for a moment that the campaign-contribution limit in Irvine is $360. Agran's flouting of campaign-finance laws isn't what most concerns his old allies.
"I have to be honest," said UC Irvine professor Mark Petracca, a longtime Agran friend and campaign adviser since 1988. "I don't recognize this Larry. It's okay to put friends in positions so they can influence public policy, but certainly not so they can make personal financial gains. That's not the way we've conducted ourselves in the past. We were above that. All of this is really sad, tragic, painful to watch."
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It wasn't long ago that Agran held himself out as squeaky-clean. In 2000, he helped end Dave Christensen's political career by repeatedly hammering his then-council colleague's questionable behavior with a real-estate developer and a city-funded cell phone. When Christensen struggled to explain the problem, Agran was merciless. "Poor, poor Dave," he said.
The following year, Agran became mayor and won headlines for announcing he would champion efforts to "discourage misconduct" by powerful elected officials. "I think it's always important to do everything possible to instill and maintain public confidence in the honesty and integrity of elected officials," he told an LA Times reporter in 2001.
Ironically, three years later, it was Agran's lack of integrity that lost him the support of three close allies: Petracca; fellow Democrat councilman Chris Mears; and local businessman Mitch Goldstone, who ran in 2002 on Agran's candidate slate. The cause of the split is not in dispute: the ENCO project.
In August, Mears announced that "ethical concerns" would prevent him from seeking re-election on Agran's slate. Specifically, he said Agran knew Dornan had a financial interest in the outcome of the controversial energy project, kept it secret and didn't discourage the arrangement. "It was flat-out wrong," Mears told the Weekly. "It raises serious questions about Larry's ethics. Is the public comfortable knowing the mayor's best friend is lobbying the city on behalf of an energy company and could receive a huge sum of money if the deal is made? I doubt it."
In response, Agran first refused interviews. When the story didn't go away, he spread vicious personal rumors about Mears. Later, he asked Times reporter Jean Pasco what was wrong with a "private citizen" (that would be Dornan) making money with a "private firm that may or may not do business with the city"? Agran then settled on his latest answer in late August: he couldn't have known about Dornan's financial interest in the municipal utility deal because Dornan had none.
Never mind that city records made public by the Weekly show Dornan introduced ENCO executives to city officials in 2001, lobbied repeatedly on their behalf, and that someone other than the city paid for Dornan's flight to Arizona when Agran and staff inspected ENCO facilities. Mears and now Petracca say the mayor is lying.
"It's never been a 'What did the mayor know and when did he know it?' question for me," said Petracca. "Because Larry knew about Dornan's financial tie to the energy deal and could have objected but didn't."
Petracca says the mayor called him to a March 24 one-on-one meeting at an Irvine bakery after Mears voiced strenuous opposition to the Dornan-ENCO arrangement. "He wanted to know if I shared Chris' concerns about the whole utility thing," said Petracca. "At the time, Larry and Chris weren't speaking to each other and I had hoped to serve as a conciliator. You have to remember this is five months before Chris went public, and I still believed—erroneously as it turns out—that I could heal their relationship. I told him he could solve the problem by having Ed bow out of the energy deal, but he wouldn't budge. Larry was so angry that Chris had made this an issue."
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During the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, Petracca says he asked Agran to consider the political ramifications if news leaked about Dornan and ENCO. "He kept saying he had no control over Ed," said Petracca. "And he told me that even if the public learned about it, his political opponents were too incompetent to successfully use it in the elections. I remember he said something like, 'We can deal with whatever they throw at us.' He didn't think it was a big deal."
Agran's miscalculations have proven costly. Not only has he lost control over the City Council with Mears now refusing to give him a three-vote majority, but also the scandals will likely affect the upcoming elections. Disillusionment with the mayor prompted Mears, Petracca and Goldstone, three liberals, to endorse Republicans Ward and Greg Smith. In coming weeks, they plan to send a letter explaining their decision to Irvine voters.
"I don't take pleasure in any of this," said Petracca, chairman of the Irvine planning commission. "I've considered Larry a friend for a long time. He's one of the smartest people around. But I'm flabbergasted that he won't tell the truth."