What if a politician raised a million dollars, deposited it into a secret campaign account designed to dodge contribution laws, and then spent the money to win tightly contested elections? Would he get caught and punished?
Ask Larry Agran, Orange County's leading Democrat.
The Irvine city councilman, who controls the $400 million Great Park project, has been dogged by allegations of influence peddling, cronyism, suspicious no-bid contracts, prearranged government decisions, padded payments to favored city contractors, attempts to thwart public disclosure, legal threats against inquisitive media outlets and $441-per-hour insider deals. Three men tied to previous government bribery scandals have been linked to Agran's political machine.
The charges have attracted the attention of nonpartisan watchdog groups, investigative reporters and FBI agents. In recent weeks, the Orange County grand jury has opened its own probe.
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Now, there's evidence that Agran used about a million dollars in off-the-books contributions to steal local elections.
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Agran has served for nearly two decades on the Irvine City Council, but he casts a long shadow over Orange County, even national politics. The onetime Democratic presidential candidate was—and, if you ask his dwindling supporters, still is—the model for successful progressive politicians in hostile Republican territory.
Agran insists money has nothing to do with his success. It's his character, he says, his "honesty, integrity and professionalism," that resonates with voters and keeps him in power.
"I think it's always important to do everything possible to instill and maintain public confidence in the honesty and integrity of elected officials," he has said.
In contrast, Agran says, his opponents lose because of their "deplorable and deceptive . . . vicious smears . . . slurs . . . malicious lies and gutter politics."
In truth, Agran's political machine, the one that's controlled Irvine City Hall for the past five years, survives for one key reason: the Hometown Voter Guide (HVG), a slate-mailer operation.
A quick lesson in one aspect of election law is necessary at this point, and I promise to make it painless:
First, candidates must adhere to contribution limits; in Irvine, that limit is $360 per contributor. But (and this is the second point) slate mailers—businesses that collect money from a variety of candidates but aren't controlled by those candidates—are exempt from those limits.
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Launched in September 2000, HVG raises hundreds of thousands of dollars each election cycle from companies and lobbyists with business at Irvine City Hall. HVG then spends the money to promote Agran and his allies. When it's not praising Agran as a selfless visionary, it's slamming his critics.
If you doubt the ferocity of HVG's work, ask the long list of scarred local Republicans and independents. In the final days of the last election, Irvine voters received more than 25 full-color, glossy HVG mailers that spread sensational half-truths or outright lies about Agran's opponents. HVG operators were also instrumental in orchestrating Republican Earl Zucht's fake, last-minute City Council campaign. Zucht siphoned several thousand critical votes from legitimate Republicans challenging Agran and his Democratic allies, Beth Krom and Suhkee Kang. Combined, HVG and the Zucht trick gave Agran the margin he needed to gain control of the majority Republican city.
Despite the trickery, a jubilant Agran posed as a moral crusader. "I will continue to shine a light into the darker recesses of the political process," he told a reporter. At the time, he had no idea his own dark secret would be revealed.
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Mark Petracca is a prominent UC Irvine professor of political science and a commentator on KOCE. Until 2004, Petracca was Agran's longtime confidant. He also served as a top adviser to HVG. Petracca says there was no difference between Agran's campaign and the slate-mailer operation: Agran ran both.
"Larry worked closely on crafting messages to be delivered by the Hometown Voter Guide," said Petracca, who was subsequently interviewed by the Orange County grand jury.
The charge is another serious blow to Agran's fading credibility.
Under California election law, HVG's activities are legal only if they are independent of Agran and his operatives.
In hopes of thwarting any controversy, the councilman has insisted that the slate mailer is run by a "private" individual. But beginning with a 2001 Los Angeles Times report by Jean Pasco, it's been increasingly obvious that HVG is a front group for Agran. It's not just that HVG's messages mirror Agran's campaign themes. Or that Agran's campaign committee and HVG share contributors, staff, research, lawyers, printers and office space. The supposedly independent group was created by Ed Dornan, Agran's best friend, top strategist, chief fund-raiser and inseparable companion.
Remember Zucht, the fake GOP candidate? After the election, reporters discovered he was Dornan's neighbor, pal and poker partner. Contributors who gave to Dornan's HVG and to Agran also gave to Zucht, who ran as a right-winger. Nobody in the local GOP had ever heard of Zucht. Yet it was Agran and Dornan flipping their middle fingers at the electorate by secretly backing Zucht and his disingenuous campaign theme: "Conservative Leadership You Can Trust."
During a December interview, KUCI radio host Cameron Jackson asked Agran if the gregarious Dornan, who in private likened himself to TV mobster Tony Soprano, was ever connected to his campaigns.
"No," said Agran. "He runs a slate mailer."
Jackson: Wasn't Zucht a fake candidate helping you?
Agran: "Why don't you give Earl Zucht a call? He struck me as a very serious candidate."
It was classic, shameless Agran.
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The key to a successful conspiracy is silence, and Dornan won't talk: he died last month of natural causes. But Petracca provided the Weekly with the final piece of key evidence against Agran and HVG.
"Larry and I spent hours on the phone talking about these [HVG mailers] and going over language, points, etc.," Petracca said in early January. "Sometimes Ed was at Larry's or vice versa, since I recall Larry giving me a suggestion over the phone that Ed had just made. Larry isn't an e-mail person, so I would type drafts of the text, fax them to Larry's house and then we'd talk about it . . . It was Larry and I who'd agree on the final wording."
Petracca remembers returning from vacation in the summer of 2002 when HVG was preparing to target for defeat Irvine City Councilwoman Christina Shea, Agran's most vocal Republican critic. "Larry and Ed had already prepared the mailers and they were waiting for me to edit them," said Petracca.
When he voiced questions about the lawfulness of HVG's activities as early as 2000, he says, Agran—a Harvard-trained lawyer—told him "it was perfectly legal." But he also recalls that Dornan and Agran liked to keep their maneuvers secret. According to Petracca, "Larry and Ed really didn't want anyone else involved in either the big picture or the production of the HVG mailers."
The impact of all this? While his opponents obeyed the $360 contribution limit per donor, Agran and Dornan used HVG to collect contributions in chunks of $10,000, $25,000, $50,000 or more from single sources, among them major real-estate developers, trash haulers and lobbyists. Campaign-finance records also show they used HVG to supplement the campaign war chest by more than $950,000 in illegal funds during the past five years.
Does this mean that Agran's machine stole the 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections?
"Those two guys [Agran and Dornan] were always working on some angle," said attorney Chris Mears, another disillusioned ex-Agranista who served on the Irvine City Council. "If Petracca's information is right, I'm sure Larry was involved in Hometown Voter Guide because he thought he could get away with it."
Agran did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
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If Petracca and Mears are right, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, election watchdog Shirley Grindle and Orange County Register editorial writer Steven Greenhut should renew their demands for a prosecution. But District Attorney Tony Rackauckas might require a nudge from the grand jury: Rackauckas, Agran and HVG share the same political consulting firm, the powerful Forde and Mollrich. In fact, the DA still owes the firm $17,000 from his last campaign.
But Petracca's revelation should also prompt Agran, who has spent the past two years angrily claiming he's been unfairly "slimed," to do the right thing: apologize to Irvine residents.
And then resign.
But it's unlikely he'll be prosecuted and unbelievable he'll resign. Just last month, without a hint of irony, he championed new "Rules for Ethical and Open Governance" because, he said, he's worried about preventing "government for sale . . . government by eBay."
Said Agran, "It's wrong."
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