From appearances, Irvine—Orange County's third-largest city—is the epitome of middle-class tranquility. The neighborhoods, even the ones that aren't gated, look gorgeous. The shopping malls and parks are well-kept. Street crime is rare. The schools are among the best in California, and the residents, an impressive mix of nationalities and skills, thrive in unrivaled cultural diversity.
Those superlatives, however, mask an ugly truth. If you're not paying close attention, it's impossible to imagine that a sunny, palm-tree swaying locale such as Irvine could be plagued with the entrenched corruption that has traditionally infected such cities as Chicago and New York. But a ruthless, self-serving political machine most assuredly runs this place.
No, corpses of people who've dared challenge the publicly unacknowledged governing organization aren't buried beneath concrete driveways or tossed into the nearby Pacific Ocean. Larry Agran's political machine isn't violent because, perhaps, its methods of control have been essentially lethal. Using a 3-2 council majority, Agran, a surly liberal Democrat, has held power for 12 consecutive years in Republican-heavy Irvine. How surly? A few years ago, a civil grand jury lambasted the city's brazen hocus-pocus and secretive finances and the capofamiglia defiantly told it to pound sand.
Without total power, Agran's machine would be robbed of the very thing that has kept it artificially afloat: unfettered access to more than $1 billion in city funds during its reign. The council majority adequately funds vital services, but it also acts like the Gambino family by diverting chunks of taxpayer funds to its self-preservation. Year after year, Agran has used lucrative, no-bid government contracts to funnel millions of taxpayer dollars to his private campaign consultants and to the individuals and corporations that generously contribute to his re-election efforts.
Yet, it's telling that despite the stolen resources, the Agran machine must routinely doctor ballots to cheat voters so it can keep control of City Hall. A week ago, I revealed evidence that Agran's allies had lured a decoy Republican candidate, Katherine Daigle, into the upcoming mayoral election with the purpose of stealing enough votes from GOP frontrunner Steven Choi for Agran to win the seat. The person who enticed Daigle, a political unknown, to enter the race was Patrick B. Strader, a longtime Agran-campaign contributor and a lobbyist for Heritage Fields El Toro LLC, the real-estate developer that's building around the proposed Great Park. The developer wants Agran to remain in power because it has a sweetheart deal on tens of millions of dollars in future public concessions to the private company [See "Larry Agran Is Stealing Another Election in Republican-Heavy Irvine," Oct. 11].
Daigle isn't the first political suicide bomber sent to blow up Irvine Republican chances to control the council. That honor goes to Earle Zucht. In 2004, Agran was forced out of the mayor's office on term limits and wanted Beth Krom, another liberal member of his machine, to take the job. But polling showed that Mike Ward, a popular Republican, was destined to win the election.
An unknown Zucht entered the race, declared without an accomplishment to his name that he was ready to run the city, pretended to be a legitimate candidate and was quietly funded by Agran's allies. Though there were hundreds of banks nearby in Orange County, Zucht opened a campaign account at a California Bank & Trust 40 miles away in downtown Los Angeles. It was the same bank where Agran and three members of his machine kept their campaign accounts.
On election day, Zucht completed his assignment. He siphoned nearly 5,000 critical votes from Ward, allowing Krom to narrowly win the seat. Keen observers knew the race had been stolen and were disgusted by the trickery. While Agran angrily called conspiracy allegations preposterous, local reporters joked amongst themselves about what reward Zucht would receive for his sabotage.
Daigle's odd appearance in the pending Choi-Agran contest for mayor caused me to recently revisit the life of Zucht, who'd quickly returned to relative oblivion after his candidacy. He presently works as a salesman for SAP America in its Irvine offices. I wanted to know if, in the aftermath of the 2004 election, he'd gotten new business opportunities with the aid of Agran's political machine. The results were eye-opening.
Three years after that race, Dana W. Reed, a Republican consultant and Los Angeles-based lawyer immersed in Agran's campaigns before and after Zucht, opened a business, Dana Point Today, in Zucht's name, according to California Secretary of State filings. How much the enterprise made Zucht before the entity fell inactive isn't known.
Neither he nor Reed, who is helping to run Agran's current Save Our Schools ballot initiative, responded to interview requests.
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Perhaps it is just coincidence that after Zucht helped Agran to keep control of Irvine, he also performed work for Empire Water Corporation, according to records obtained by the Weekly. That company, formed in 2005, is registered in Nevada but based in Lake Forest and is involved in developing and selling water resources in Southern California. At this point, you likely won't be surprised that lobbyist Roger S. Faubel, a longtime Agran pal who has worked on various Agran-related campaign efforts, is on Empire Water's board of directors.
It makes you wonder what windfalls might eventually come Daigle's way.
This column appeared in print as "Irvine's Latest Suicide Bomber: Larry Agran recruits his newest decoy Republican to steal the city's mayoral election—again."