In a Jan. 14 reaction to the latest scathing, independent audit of his financial mismanagement at the proposed Orange County Great Park, Larry Agran—Irvine's legendary Democratic Party boss—played the shocked, wounded victim like only a 35-year, career politician could. Agran pouted, acted confused and tossed onto underlings all accountability for any possible "very disturbing irregularities." Though he's the reigning Southern California king of unapologetic cronyism and backroom deals, he declared himself a champion of "financial propriety."
The 50-page summary of the recently completed forensic audit by Hagen, Streiff, Newton & Oshiro (HSNO) details how Agran spent years bungling the Great Park project and diverting large sums to enrich players in his own political machine. One of the more egregious findings was that he'd handed three of his campaign operatives at least $174,500 per month—that's not a typo: per month!—in no-bid, government contracts for alleged public-relations tasks at a park that still hasn't celebrated a real grand opening. For that malfeasance alone, Irvine residents should boot Agran and his squawking council sidekick, Beth Krom, from public office.
But if the tainted spending doesn't outrage, perhaps you might not like Agran's hamfisted attempt to argue this HSNO audit is irrelevant by rewriting history and reshaping reality. Several years ago, he dismissed another disturbing audit detailing secrecy and puzzling spending by equating himself to a modern-day Frederick Law Olmsted, who had to be "creative" financially. We now know Agran's imagination has run wild.
For 14 years, he has been promising "the most extraordinary park" built in the 21st century at the site of the mothballed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, and by gosh, it's there, Auntie Em. Just close your eyes, click the heels of your ruby-red slippers three times, and you won't see the vast emptiness of Agran's non-accomplishments. Close your eyes extra-hard, and you can see in dreamy haze the promised stately museums on par with the Smithsonian, NFL-worthy sports stadium, college campuses, war memorial, wildlife park, seemingly endless hiking trails, lakeside amphitheater, boardwalk and a 2.5-mile, manmade canyon.
With his eyes open at the public hearing on the audit, Agran—who made a quixotic run to win the Democratic Party's 1992 presidential nomination—tossed truth aside and incredibly declared, "We've delivered!"
In March 2003, Agran guaranteed to me on the record that Orange County's Great Park would not only be more impressive than San Diego's Balboa Park (1,200 acres) and New York's Central Park (843 acres), but also massively larger, with 2,800 acres of open, public "parkland," and he got pissy that anyone would question his numbers.
For years, he and his allies employed those false claims and called their political candidacies "The Great Park Team" to keep control of the city, as well as the $1.6 billion project.
Here's the reality: Not a single major item of Agran's park master plan—a plan he wasted several years and $50 million to concoct—exists. And get a load of these additional facts: In 2006, the size of the project was chopped in half to 1,347 acres. It has now dwindled to a mere 220 acres. In Agran's view, that is "progress" that critics of his corruption—people he calls "gas bags"—refuse to appreciate.
"I'm proud of what we've achieved," he said, and then noted the audit's findings of incompetence, secrecy and malpractice "just don't compute."
(Fittingly, councilman Jeff Lalloway observed it's time to drop "great" from the title and call it what it is: just another government park plan.)
There's no mystery about the cause of the park's shrinkage. Its coffers are relatively empty after Agran and Krom (and their onetime third council ally, Sukhee Kang) spent more than $133 million and somehow forgot to build the promised park. Krom angrily defended all the wasteful contracts to the well-connected, campaign operatives as necessary, pre-park construction "community outreach." She slammed the audit—including sworn statements that Agran secretly ordered staff to allow his buddies to convert fixed-fee contracts into lucrative, open-fee arrangements. For example, four firms offered to complete various Great Park tasks for $5.1 million, won the jobs by placing the lowest qualified bids, and then quietly filed dozens and dozens of "change orders" that inflated their pay to $14.825 million. The audit reasonably labeled the tactic both excessive and questionable.
"Oh, my God, are we on an HBO suspense thriller?" mocked a sour-faced Krom to the auditor who'd presented the findings at the Irvine City Council session.
Dan Chmielewski—a PR man by day, as well as an unrepentant defender of Agran/Krom corruption and co-owner of TheLiberalOC.com—fretted in a Jan. 13 blog post that the audit revelations might influence voters in upcoming city elections. Chmielewski opined that the real villains who emptied the Great Park coffers aren't Agran and Krom, who unquestionably controlled spending from 2002 to the end of 2012. Instead, he wants the public to believe the people who "wasted" park funds were council members who were in the minority and powerless during the entire period, Christina Shea and Steven Choi. According to Chmielewski, the Republican majority that took control of the city in 2013 and ordered the audit should not have hired HSNO—who performed forensic auditing in the ENRON and Bernie Madoff scandals. He says they should have instead used Agran-controlled city bureaucrats to write the report because they have "objectivity."
Back in reality, the willingness of key city bureaucrats and contractors to keep the public in the dark is alarming. The audit cited staff-approved, public notices as misleading or dishonest about park finances and contracts. Krom wasn't bothered by the cheating or by the lack of cooperation the auditors received. For example, Stu Mollrich ordered investigators not to ask any questions of employees at Forde & Mollrich, the biggest recipient of Agran's questionable PR contracts. Marsha Burgess, once a government employee involved in the PR contract shenanigans and a Krom pal, refused to field a single question. Bureaucrats working for Sean Joyce—the $369,000-per-year city manager hired by Agran's council majority in 2004—blocked auditors from accessing city records that might explain money flowing through various accounts.
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"I think you've gone out of your way to make people's actions appear more sinister than they are," complained Krom, who is such a la-la-land character that she described the audit as "maybe titillating," but certainly not "useful."
The Agran lapdog has demonstrated a fondness for uttering inadvertently hilarious gobbledygook. She may outdo herself this year. Though it was her allies who shut down auditors from following the park money trail in several instances, she had the audacity to complain the report is an "incomplete set of data."
Someone famous once observed, "Facts are stubborn things." But Krom apparently has a contrary view. As if discrediting the audit and saying something meaningful, she stated, "I think facts need to be understood as how important and significant they are."
In other words: Move on, folks. There's nothing here to see. Don't stare at this grisly collision of truth and shameless propaganda. Oh, and by the way, how about putting our Agran team back in power in Irvine?