Based on displays of hostility between various Republican and Democratic officials in Orange County, residents might assume we enjoy a healthy, competitive, political environment in which both sides serve as watchdogs eager to expose the opposition's slimy characters and dirty maneuvers.
But what if the partisan labels, mad-dogging and harsh words were diversionary accouterments in a show of deception? What if the two supposed enemies were quietly working in unison to achieve a nefarious goal they didn't want the public to discover? What would such theatrics look like?
Thanks to Larry Agran, Irvine's senior career politician, we don't have to guess. First elected to the City Council 34 years ago, Agran's aggressive, nanny-state liberalism made him a lefty hero and a target for ridicule among OC Republicans. For nearly two decades, there wasn't anything fake about the contemptuous battle between the two camps.
Agran, now 67, continues to speak as though those days still exist, when he was a rebel outsider fighting for the little guy against powerful, moneyed interests. He utters passionate lines memorized during that era, but nowadays, the words are hollow. The outsider became the entrenched insider 12 years ago, when his political machine took over the city, its coffers and one of the biggest prizes in California municipal history.
The federal government's gift of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to Irvine put Agran's 3-2 council majority in control of land worth tens of billions of dollars, an end-of-the-Cold War move that inexorably altered the local political landscape. Agran became the gatekeeper to the potential spoils of more than 4,700 acres of prime Southern California property now called the Orange County Great Park.
The Republican real-estate developers and businessmen who'd funded bitter campaigns against Agran didn't just suddenly become silent about their old foe. They became his primary source of campaign revenue. It helped that members of Agran's machine—hamfisted operatives such as the late Ed Dornan—let the business community know the newfound mutual-admiration society depended on their generous donations to Agran's numerous political bank accounts.
Generosity bred generosity. With typically more than double the campaign resources of his GOP challengers, Agran's Democrat operation has won six consecutive elections in a city with a majority of Republican residents. The price of such an arrangement is corruption: a long list of lucrative, no-bid city contracts has been given to the very businesses that pump as much as $50,000 at a time into Agran's campaigns.
Please don't forget this alarming fact, even if the FBI looks the other way: Arnold Forde, Agran's top political consultant, pocketed $120,000 per month in taxpayer funds for more than half a decade to do public relations for a local public park that still has not been completed.
To maintain this shady status quo, Agran is willing to cheat. His allies have recruited decoy Republican candidates whose mission is to sabotage legitimate Republican candidates by duping unwitting residents into splitting GOP votes in the Nov. 6 election. Evan Chemers has been assigned the task of undermining legitimate Republican council candidates Christina Shea and Lynn Schott, while Katherine Daigle's mission is to put Agran in the mayor's office for another two years by siphoning key votes from Steven Choi.
It's those battles that have revealed the extent of how Agran and certain Republican operatives and businessmen are secretly in cahoots. For example, the person who helped to convince Daigle to make her laughable run for mayor was Agran ally Patrick B. Strader. A wealthy, trust-fund Republican, Strader is a lobbyist for Heritage Fields El Toro LLC, the company on the verge of winning from Agran huge financial public concessions for the private development of land around the Great Park.
Though Strader and his family are longtime campaign contributors to Agran, who appointed him to a powerful city commission overseeing assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Strader told gullible, lazy Orange County Register reporter Thomas Martinez that his behind-the-scenes contact with Daigle was benign. He is, he insists, neutral in the mayor's race.
Similarly neutral is Strader's close friend Adam Probolsky, a veteran Republican operative who spent years berating Agran as a socialist before the city got control of the old military air base. In recent years, Probolsky has praised Agran as a brilliant public servant. Last month, he hosted a sham candidates' forum designed to raise Daigle's nonexistent public persona. Agran underscored the absurdity of the event when he wondered aloud how anyone could doubt Probolsky's respectable neutrality.
Because Daigle is without prior public accomplishment, cogent ideas or money, Agran and his alliance decided to fund her candidacy. That's right, the cagey veteran Democrat is supporting a Republican candidate . . . in his own race!
It gets better.
To help Daigle wreck Republican Party-endorsed Choi, Agran's alliance isn't using a liberal political-action committee (PAC). Instead, the PAC behind Daigle's pro-Agran, anti-Choi messages flooding Irvine mailboxes is—drum roll, please—a Republican-controlled entity: Dave Gilliard's California Homeowners Association (CHA).
Gilliard is a veteran GOP strategist with the Sacramento-based Gilliard, Blanning & Associates. When I asked Gilliard—a consultant for Irvine Republican Congressman John Campbell, as well as Republican Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, Republican Congressman Ed Royce and Republican Supervisor candidate Todd Spitzer—to explain how CHA got involved, he clammed up. No matter: campaign-finance-disclosure reports prove CHA is aiding Agran's efforts to keep control of Irvine.
Wouldn't it be oddly coincidental if Gilliard, like Strader, was a close Probolsky pal? Let's search Google to see what pops up. . . . The website for Probolsky's consulting firm contains a testimonial from Gilliard: "We work with Probolsky Research on some of our toughest campaigns, and we win."
Also, CHA used Direct Marketing Inc. (DMI) of Orange to print the pro-Agran, anti-Choi messages. Erik Brown, a self-styled Christian conservative and longtime party activist with ties to the Orange County Young Republicans, owns DMI. He is the man who infamously submitted a 2010 expense to the Republican National Committee for a $2,000 bill from a gay-run, sadomasochistic-themed West Hollywood nightclub. Funny how Brown, like Strader and Gilliard, also happens to be a Probolsky buddy.
Of course, Republicans plotting with Agran would be meaningless if someone didn't step forward to pay the costs of the sabotage mailers. Two out-of-town businesses contributed $55,000 in recent weeks, according to disclosure reports. Both companies are gambling operations—Casino 580 LLC in Los Angeles and San Bruno's Artichoke Joe's Casino, which was raided last year as part of a bust of a loan-sharking ring.
In the wake of my prior published revelations about her ties to Strader and Probolsky—a paid advocate for gaming expansion efforts in the state—Daigle has appeared publicly incredulous that anyone would dare question her campaign. She wants us to suspend reality and, whatever we do, not ponder this question:
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Why would Dennis J. Sammut—the owner of Artichoke Joe's seven hours away and a contributor to liberal politicians such as Diane Feinstein, John Burton, Don Perata, Jackie Speier, Bill Lockyer and Antonio Villaraigosa—spend so much money for an unknown rookie OC Republican candidate with no chance of winning?
Maybe the party labels are meaningless because in Irvine, money—lots of money—is up for grabs for anyone who joins Team Agran.
This column appeared in print as "The Great Irvine Election Robbery of 2012: Larry Agran is hoping a flood of tainted money and bizarre alliances keep him in power."