Irvine political boss Larry Agran is a dour fellow, but you can't fault his sense of humor.
Two days after the Weekly disclosed on Jan. 12 that the grand jury is eyeing financial irregularities at Irvine's Great Park, Agran told reporters he's elated by the attention. "I welcome any scrutiny that is given to the operation of the Great Park Corporation," Agran—a city councilman and chairman of the $400 million public corporation—told The Orange County Register.
In truth, news of the investigation likely startled the notoriously thin-skinned Agran, who has spent the past 18 months working on ways to restrict public access to the inner workings of City Hall, the Great Park operation and his political machine. He's consulted a prominent defense lawyer who is familiar with grand jury procedures and is a friend of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. He's also made several telephone calls to allies interested in thwarting a full-scale investigation.
To Agran's relief, the probe is being conducted under the grand jury's civil—not criminal—authority. A subcommittee of the panel is asking witnesses to volunteer information. The current worst-case scenario: a scathing report about questionable conduct, but no indictments.
Throughout his 30-year public career, Agran has claimed he's the model of rectitude, viciously attacking anybody who suggests otherwise. But in recent years, his critical circle has broadened beyond conservatives to longtime personal friends who say Agran, once a nationally prominent liberal, has morphed into the boss of a Chicago-style political machine. Besieged by allegations of backroom deals, many of the details coming from disaffected members of his inner circle, Agran said he was the victim of a "vicious" and "false" smear campaign. Investigative reports pounding him appeared in the Weekly, Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register, as well as on local radio.
Agran's response? "We have some of the worst media in the country here," he said on KUCI's OC Variety Hournews program last month.
"I'm flabbergasted that [Agran] won't tell the truth," Mark Petracca, a UC Irvine political science professor and former Agran confidant, told the Weekly in September 2004.
Because Agran and his Democratic political allies control the Irvine City Council, they also control the powerful Great Park board, the public corporation overseeing future construction of a park at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Miami-based homebuilder Lennar Corp. is designing a massive residential-commercial project for the non-public portion of the old military base.
Agran runs both the council and the park board with a style that borders on dictatorial. At the Great Park alone, for example, he has pushed for numerous no-bid contracts, granted massive contracts to political friends—including a lavish legal-consulting contract for $441 per hour—voted to ignore questionable contractor billings, thwarted public access to key documents and scheduled public meetings at times the public was unlikely to attend. When board member Dick Sim resigned last year over what he called Agran's mismanagement, Agran suggested Sim—an accomplished real-estate developer at the Irvine Co.—was too old and close-minded to understand real public planning. Insiders said Sim's departure elated the park chairman because Agran was tired of his scrutiny.
There never are apologies from Agran. He's worked energetically to design a corporate reporting structure that limited the ability of fellow board members to question his conduct. Meanwhile, he did nothing to prevent padded, taxpayer-funded payments to a nonprofit under his control, coordinated expensive city mailers with the campaign messages of his so-called "Great Park" political machine, angled to get himself a publicly funded $200,000-per-year job once he leaves the council and helped his campaign contributors position themselves to receive government contracts at the Great Park. As the Weekly reported in 2004, Agran also saw nothing wrong with his top operative, Ed Dornan, working to collect a reported million-dollar fee from a private utility seeking a 50-year city monopoly in the city.
If the grand jury is serious about its job, it will shift its probe from civil to criminal, place at least a half-dozen individuals under oath, and obtain details of the scam that's kept Agran in power at City Hall and at the Great Park: the Hometown Voter Guide (HVG), a slate mailer run in past elections by Dornan.
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Dornan funded his operation in part by soliciting campaign contributions from companies with business matters pending before the City Council; orchestrated smear campaigns against Republican opponents such as Christina Shea, Steven Choi and Mike Ward; and funneled hundreds of thousands of potentially illegal dollars into the political system for Agran's machine.
The grand jury—which should be applauded for its initiative—faces at least three serious hurdles in its investigation: timing, support and obfuscation. Agran is a master of sugarcoating his dark side. DA Rackauckas, who loathes political corruption cases, has a longtime relationship with Arnold Forde and Stu Mollrich, Agran's $50,000-per-month consultants. And Dornan died last month of natural causes. He likely took a long list of ugly secrets to the grave.
Note: An early version of this story appeared on Jan. 12.