Until this past Nov. 6, Orange County witnessed just four political tsunamis in a quarter of a century: Loretta Sanchez toppled incumbent Congressman Robert K. Dornan in 1996; residents vetoed plans for an international airport at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in 2002; a Democrat, Barack Obama, grabbed 48 percent of the presidential vote in 2008—double Walter Mondale's 1984 take against Ronald Reagan; and community outrage over police brutality recalled a Fullerton City Council majority in June.
Now, we can add to that list this general election's crushing defeat of the county's shadiest career politician: Larry Agran, the Irvine Democrat who boldly traveled the nation in 1992 as a fresh, ideas-rich presidential candidate but ended up as the exhausted, two-faced, conniving boss of a tainted machine.
Local Republicans watched helplessly for more than a decade as Agran, using his 3-2 city council majority, ran the city in dictatorial, secretive style. At one point, for example, he decided the two elected Republicans on the council were not entitled to see the same government documents flowing to him and his two liberal yes-persons, Beth Krom and Sukhee Kang. The Republicans sued and won; using taxpayer funds, Agran appealed (essentially arguing that the council minority couldn't be trusted to know details about city affairs) and lost again.
At about 9 p.m. on election night, shocked Irvine Republicans literally jumped up and down when they realized they were finally on their way to not only defeating Agran, but also taking control of the city with their own 3-2 council majority of Steven Choi, Christina Shea and Jeff Lalloway.
"Can you believe it?" former Irvine councilman Greg Smith asked inside the otherwise-subdued, anti-Obama GOP gathering at the Westin South Coast Plaza. "We finally did it!"
Lalloway looked as though he had thrown the winning touchdown in a Super Bowl. Shea wore a permanent smile, and Jon Fleischman, the veteran GOP official who designed a powerful direct-mail campaign against Agran, appeared uncharacteristically giddy.
But GOPers were also fuming because one of their own, a longtime Republican elected official, had tried on the eve of the election to keep Irvine's Democratic machine in power. Incredibly, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas produced a last-minute robocall for Agran's frantic re-election effort.
I understand the call for bipartisanship, but the move was especially eyebrow-raising. Rackauckas is an ultra-conservative, Republican lawman. Agran is a lefty Democrat and likely OC's most ethically warped politician.
"This is outrageous," said Allen Bartlett, an Irvine Republican activist. Bartlett already wasn't happy that fellow Republicans Adam Probolsky, Patrick B. Strader, Jimmy Camp, Erik Brown and Dave Gilliard also worked to aid the Democrats.
For 12 years, Agran kept control of Irvine's massive city coffers by placing fake Republican candidates on the ballot; giving lucrative, no-bid government contracts to his own private campaign consultants; and forcing businesses seeking city concessions to make massive contributions to his various campaign bank accounts.
The scheme stinks, and thanks to Rackauckas' tacit endorsement of Agran, some Republican activists believe they know why local prosecutors and criminal grand juries have steadfastly ignored Irvine corruption.
I confronted the DA on election night and asked him if he could appreciate my suspicions that he, an unwavering, conservative Republican, had helped a corrupt Democrat.
Rackauckas paused for about five seconds, smiled and said, "Well, sure." He went on to say, "I believe it was the right thing to do."
According to Rackauckas, a Republican campaign mailer accusing Agran of weakening a DA-proposed anti-sex-offender ordinance in the city "just wasn't fair."
I reminded the DA that if the mailer (I hadn't seen it at the time) accused Agran of watering down the proposal, then it was accurate because the Irvine Democrat had done so by limiting the prohibition against sex offenders lurking in public parks to criminals convicted only of sex crimes against kids. All other convicted sexual predators could still roam parks and school yards under Agran's editing.
"That's right," Rackauckas replied.
So why aid Agran?
"I think the mailer went too far," he said. "It was misleading because it claimed child molesters were roaming the streets of Irvine, and that's not the case. Irvine is a safe city with an excellent police department."
But hyperbole is commonplace in political ads. Indeed, Agran has flat-out manufactured absurd lies against his Republican opponents in the past six elections. So, again, why weigh in on this particular Republican ad against Agran?
Rackauckas said, "I just felt an obligation to straighten out the false impression the mailer created—that child pornographers and rapists are roaming the streets."
I doubted a single Irvine resident accepted that image and pressed for details about how he'd stepped into the Agran-Choi race.
"I got contacted by Agran," the DA explained. "He wasn't happy with the mailer. I researched it and concluded it wasn't fair. Look, I'm all for hard blows in political campaigns, but the hard blows should be fair. That one wasn't."
After Rackauckas entered a restricted Westin room protected by two private guards, multiple sources told me facts the DA hadn't shared: He'd personally approved the mailer against Agran before it hit mailboxes. He'd even written a quote for the piece.
"Why would the DA help craft a campaign message against Agran, and then do a robocall for Agran?" a prominent OC Republican asked me.
GOP activists arrived at an answer: Rackauckas and Agran have a mutual buddy, Republican political consultant Arnold Forde.
Accurate or not, it is now conventional wisdom in GOP circles that Agran made his most Machiavellian move to insure Rackauckas would never seriously dig into Irvine shenanigans by hiring Forde when his political machine took control of the federally abandoned, multibillion-dollar El Toro base.
It's true that any competent investigation of Agran would surely probe the activities of Forde, who grabbed more than half a decade of a $120,000-per-month, no-bid contract that included no meaningful daily, weekly, monthly or annual benchmarks.
Rackauckas and Forde have been pals for 30 years.
Susan Kang Schroeder, the DA's chief of staff, said any belief that Rackauckas was involved in a pro-Agran plot is unfounded speculation. She also said that while the DA provided a quote for the mailer, he never physically saw the piece until after it was distributed to voters.
But Choi, the man who finally topped Agran, isn't happy about what he sees as a betrayal. On election night, he also confronted Rackauckas about the robocalls. It wasn't pretty.
In what was the next Irvine mayor's first act of leadership, he suggested this to the DA: "Why don't you go party with the Democrats?"
Rackauckas is a man who despises catfights. He'd rather be fishing. Perhaps he now regrets getting involved with Agran. Maybe he doesn't.
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A question remains: Is there anyone in law enforcement—even a Democrat—who is brave enough to hold accountable Agran's shady political machine that unnecessarily drained more than $200 million in taxpayer funds from city coffers?
California Attorney General Kamala Harris? Hello?
This column appeared in print as "Robo Cop: DA Tony Rackauckas' election-eve robocall for Democrat Larry Agran angers Orange County Republicans."