We once could have imagined The New York Times sending a future reporter to a completed Orange County Great Park in Irvine for an awe-inspiring article in the paper's "Great Homes & Destinations" section. Don't laugh. There's no shame in being fooled a decade ago. That's when Irvine political boss Larry Agran promised OC that the decommissioned El Toro Marine Air Corps Station wouldn't just be filled with new houses.
The failed, 1992 Democratic presidential candidate said the development plan included man-made canyons, waterfalls and wildlife corridors; an architecturally impressive sports stadium and amphitheater; breathtaking university buildings; botanical gardens and a conservatory; and Smithsonian-caliber museums. Agran even guaranteed the Great Park would be bigger and more impressive than Manhattan's Central Park and San Diego's Balboa Park. All Irvine voters had to do to reap that historic milestone was to keep him and his political machine in control of the city.
This month, a Times reporter with "Great Homes & Destinations" did focus on Orange County, though the story wasn't about the Great Park--at least directly. That's no surprise. During Agran's 12-year reign, not a single major proposed feature was built even though $200 million evaporated from the park construction kitty.
Where did all that taxpayer money go?
Well, there is an orange balloon hovering over the property and costing $5.8 million, a public-relations stunt Agran laughably hails among his major accomplishments. There's the $125,000 playground set that, when Agran's consultants finished submitting change orders, cost $1.25 million. There are the untold millions of dollars used for glossy mailers telling residents around election times that the park will go down in history as a model of foresight and efficiency. There's also the $47 million spent on wildly unrealistic conceptual drawings.
Such wasteful disbursements make sense only when you understand that Agran's objective for seven consecutive elections was remaining in power by capturing publicity for proposing a park, not actually building one. Each election, he called his political machine "The Great Park Team" and, as time progressed, told voters, who weren't seeing progress, that construction was imminent. Said the 69-year-old man who has never bothered getting a private-sector job and hasn't built anything tougher than a tool shed, public parks are really, really complicated projects.
Given the proposal suffered setback after setback under Agran's incompetence and mismanagement, it took magic to keep him in power, and for that feat, we can thank Arnold Forde, his private campaign adviser who co-owns Forde & Mollrich in Newport Beach. A onetime consultant to Jerry Brown, Forde grabbed a no-bid, no-benchmark contract to take $100,000 per month in park funds in exchange for allegedly performing public-relations tasks. Never mind another successful, veteran PR firm volunteered to do the job for $85,000 less per month. The Forde deal wasn't so much about skill--how difficult is it to promote a park?--as it was about ties to Agran, who, with the aid of loyal, robotic, sidekick Beth Krom, separately funneled another $67,000 per month to two additional pals, Democratic operatives Chris Townsend and George Urch. Townsend and Urch, by the way, also enjoyed no-bid steals. If you're counting, those three sweetheart pacts dwindled park construction coffers by $167,000 per month.
Irvine residents worried they may never see any tangible impacts of Agran's doling out $200 million may wonder where all the money went. They won't be able to see results at the park or even in Irvine. They'll have to go to Forde's Laguna Beach house.
It turns out that while Forde collected his massive, monthly park payments, he and his wife, Marie, went on an expensive, avant-garde art shopping spree for their eight-room, 3,200-square-foot, cliff-top, contemporary home resting triumphantly above the Pacific Ocean.
What's more remarkable is that with Agran and allies Mary Ann Gaido and Melissa Fox trying to retake power in next month's election and halt an ongoing audit of Great Park spending, Forde wants Irvine residents to appreciate he has assembled his fantasy estate.
"The first thing you notice when you walk into their home in Laguna Beach isn't a table or a sofa, or even the stunning ocean view," Times reporter Elaine Louie wrote in her Oct. 1 story. "It's a bulldozer. Or, Bulldozer, to be precise, a 5,000-pound piece by the conceptual artist Chris Burden that dominates the entry hall."
Louie ignored the irony--Forde presided over idle bulldozers at the Great Park--but she wants readers to know he's "gleeful" visitors to his home are shocked by his lavish, eclectic tastes, including parking another Burden art piece, a 1973 Lotus Europa, next to the leather sofas in his living room.
"We went crazy, and we bought the tractor, and they came to the house to make sure it wouldn't crash through the floor," the consultant's wife told the reporter. "And my husband, who was chatting with the woman from the gallery, said, 'We can put the car in there, in the living room?' I said, 'Of course, we can.'"
Disapproving of anything "just mundane and boring," the couple this year spent another small fortune to upgrade the relatively small front yard, the results of which wowed Louie.
"The garden, which was completed this year for $300,000, is organized around this vermilion ribbon of aluminum handrail, which glows at night with LEDs," she lovingly noted. "It winds sinuously down the terraces, bending and curving, dipping and waving, accentuating everything it touches, including the old pine tree." Though any fifth-grader with Google access would know of Forde's controversial, Great Park role, the reporter oddly chose to withhold mention of the ongoing scandal or how her subject afforded the disposable income that landed him on her haughty pages. You must wonder if the Times joined in Forde's mocking of the taxpayer-funded windfall. The online headline on her article read, "Where Shall We Park the Art?"
When the new, anti-Agran council majority--Jeff Lalloway, Dr. Steven Choi and Christina Shea--took over in January 2013, they ended Forde's gravy train and launched an independent park-spending audit that has produced troubling revelations. One of those bombshells is that Forde refused to obey the terms of his city contract, which requires cooperation with audits. As if protecting national security, he spent months declining to share his park records with investigators and apparently did so recently after officials threatened to file a lawsuit.
Now in the council minority, Agran and Krom haven't stopped squealing. To them, the audit is a "witch-hunt" and questions about Forde's paychecks fuel a "misleading narrative."
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In an early October, 1,600-word email rant adolescently heavy on capitalized words and obtained by the Weekly, Krom--who has been on the council for 14 years and isn't presently facing re-election--outrageously claimed the park is "fully activated" and urged voters to back Agran, Fox and Gaido to continue the "good news" policies. She's especially unnerved that news reports are detailing embarrassing audit findings about the no-bid deals.
"Larry Agran isn't being attacked because he's been BAD for Irvine," wrote a clearly unhinged Krom. "He's being attacked because he's been A STRONG ADVOCATE FOR THE PUBLIC INTEREST ON THE CITY COUNCIL."
On Nov. 4, we'll discover if Irvine residents bought her shameless propaganda.