All The Councilmans Men
photo by Jack GouldWhen the city of Irvine recently hiredvociferous Great Park critic Bruce Nestande as a Great Park consultant, people wondered: Does the appointment give Nestande, the longtime advocate for an international airport in Irvine, inside leverage to resurrect his old plans? Other observers asked: Shouldn't Larry Agran, the local councilman who orchestrated the Nestande move, be applauded for robbing the pro-airport enemy of its biggest mouthpiece?
The answer to the first question is no. Orange County's Airport vs. Park war is long over with a clear winner. The second question requires a slightly more complicated response. No, Agran doesn't deserve praise for pushing his council colleagues to give an old Newport Beach nemesis a six-month, $90,000 taxpayer-funded contract on Jan. 25. But yes, the councilman's move was Machiavellian and should have prompted the following question: Who is preparing to screw whom?
Don't bend over.
Reporters are lazy, so it wasn't surprising the dailies cast the Nestande-Agran story in the simplest plot available. Sure, it's mildly interesting that once-bitter enemies are now allies. But even this story line wasn't fully explored. The newspapers allowed Nestande to accept his Great Park deal without demanding an explanation why he had dismissed the project as unfeasible on economic, infrastructure and environmental grounds; why he saw a "dire" need for an international airport at the old El Toro Marine Air Corps Station; or why he described parks and lakes as "clutter."
Agran and his puppet, Mayor Beth Krom, escaped without clearing up contradictions, too. Does it bother them Nestande told The Orange County Register in 2002 that the Great Park was an unworkable "fantasy"? Or that he called public sentiment against the airport "irrelevant"? Or argued that the "Great Park has great problems"?
Ironically, Nestande's diagnosis is now prophetic if for no other reason than his own alarming involvement. The Agran-Krom team didn't even require Nestande to appear in public to field a single question before putting him on the public payroll. They're comfortable just saying the chief lobbyist for George Argyros, the Newport Beach billionaire who bankrolled the airport idea, will provide unspecified "strategic advice" for the Great Park.
This arrangement is the final wake-up call for those residents who blindly refuse to abandon the Airport vs. Park mindset. There's a new game in progress that hinges on a single question: Will Orange County residents get the best Great Park possible, or will the plan become mired in scandals involving politically connected insiders angling to enrich themselves on one of the largest public projects in county history?
Some readers might believe Agran, a politician who claims he's a model of ethical propriety, would never jeopardize such an important project. And true enough, the wily veteran councilman has repeatedly promised that his allegiance is to honest government administered by people beyond reproach. Sadly, there's evidence to the contrary.
You'll never read this fact in the news pages of the Register or its Irvine World News, but Agran—who chairs the city's Great Park Corporation—has now surrounded himself with three disgraced politicians-turned-lobbyists who are connected to scandals involving bribery, extortion and the use of public office for personal enrichment. Even better: Nestande, Mike Roos and Frank Hill are all tied to Agran's Great Park plans.
•Nestande resigned his job as an Orange County supervisor in 1987 before a federal grand jury completed its investigation into his possible role in a bribery scheme involving a mob-tied, Kansas City landfill company seeking business in California. After Nestande quit and returned $18,000 in illegal contributions, FBI agents didn't file charges. They focused on winning a conviction against a Nestande associate, Patrick Moriarty.
•Former state assemblyman Roos, a Democrat pal of LA Mayor Jim Hahn and a current city of Irvine consultant on the Great Park, was also the subject of a federal grand jury in the Moriarty bribery case. Although federal agents never charged Roos, their investigation revealed he backed a state law that would have won a financial windfall for one of his key supporters, Moriarty. At the same time, Moriarty—who was sent to prison for bribery, including supplying prostitutes to politicians—took a $50,000 Roos investment and months later returned $100,000.
•Ex-state senator Hill—now a lobbyist for ENCO, an Agran-blessed utility company eager to win utility-service contracts involving the Great Park and other new Irvine developments—spent 46 months in a federal prison in the 1990s for extortion, conspiracy and money laundering after FBI agents videotaped him accepting a bribe in a Sacramento hotel room.
We can only guess what Agran, Roos, Hill and Nestande talk about in private. If he spoke to the Weekly, Agran would surely argue he and his consultants are honest public servants. Last year's revelations—that then-mayor Agran looked the other way while his campaign contributors secretly established shell companies to profit from future Great Park landscaping contracts—would go unmentioned. How his top aide, Ed Dornan, ended up moonlighting for ENCO would probably also be off-limits. The councilman might even threaten a lawsuit merely for asking questions about his nebulous ethics.
But to steal a pet line from the Great Park's newest insider, Nestande, "This isn't rocket science." Land that was supposed to look like New York's Central Park is now being developed by men with sketchy pasts and ties to powerful land developers. And so it's fair to wonder: Is Agran—the most secretive elected official in Orange County—presiding over what could become the Great Park robbery?
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