Until reality caught up to him last November and shattered his heavily concocted image as a good-government activist, Larry Agran served as the leader of a political machine that for a dozen years dictatorially controlled Irvine and the Orange County Great Park project.
The ugly reality includes Agran's penchant for secrecy, cronyism, narcissism and mismanagement, especially at the Great Park, a noble idea the career politician slyly converted into a biennial election tool to keep his council alliance in power, a circumstance that allowed him to give $167,000 per month in no-bid, public-relations contracts to his own political operatives.
After skipping a scheduled February deposition and demanding conditions such as taxpayers must pay for at least two lawyers defending him as he dodges potential criminal charges, Agran finally sat on March 13 with Anthony R. Taylor, the Aleshire & Wynder attorney conducting an independent audit of Great Park shenanigans.
Not surprisingly, the failed 1992 presidential primary candidate's paranoia emerged at the outset of the deposition, with Fred Woocher, one of Agran's lawyers, asking if anybody not present in the room was listening via a wire. Taylor said no, and then had to entertain the same question two more times.
Next, Agran's team encouraged Taylor to employ the California Public Records Act as a weapon for stalling journalists from reading the deposition for at least two weeks, claiming city officials would need 10 business days to find it.
"No," Taylor replied. "You have to produce a public document that's in the city's possession, of this nature, when it's requested. . . . If a member of the media, a member of the public, if they say, 'You have this transcript in your possession; I'm walking into City Hall, and I want to look at it,' they have the absolute right to look at it."
With such preliminary, Nixonian worries out of the way, Agran declared his commitment to "transparency" and tried to convert his deposition into a commercial of his greatness, even though he and Democratic Party allies Beth Krom and Sukhee Kang spent $200 million in taxpayer funds at the Great Park without building one major facet of the project they'd originally proposed.
But Taylor's first major question wiped the arrogance off Agran's face: Were you as chairman of the Great Park aware of prior audit findings by Lend Lease Corporation (formerly Bovis Lend Lease) detailing government contractor "billing irregularities"–contractors selected by Agran, contractors that contributed to Agran's campaigns, contractors that routinely piled on "change order" costs to tasks.
"No," Agran replied.
"The concern here I have, Mr. Agran, is that this letter from [Lend Lease's] attorney talks about . . . millions of dollars being paid due to billing irregularities and abuses by the [Agran-selected] Design Studio."
Agran disputed any knowledge of serious irregularities, blamed questionable disbursements "allegations" on his desire to have "layers of checking and double-checking and triple-checking" of spending, and grew terse when pressed, saying, "I've told you what I know."
The deposition then quickly fell into Agran's la-la land of selling his brilliance while taking shots at his critics:
–He did, he insists, "everything by the book."
–He'd never heard the term "FOL," his critics' "Friends of Larry" reference regarding the fact that the mayor's friends and campaign contributors miraculously won well-paying jobs or contracts at the Great Park.
–He "did not" use his influence to get Great Park contractors to hire his "friends or sons of his friends," but he later conceded emails Taylor obtained show otherwise.
–He downplayed his dictatorial management style by claiming he had "no greater" power than "other [park] board members" and was committed to "open public meetings," but then had to acknowledge he'd organized secret meetings with his pals who'd won park contracts.
–He blasted Dick Sim, an original park board member and a well-respected, veteran real-estate developer at the Irvine Co. (TIC) who'd quit early on after bemoaning Agran's secrecy and ignorance about building anything; Agran called Sim "very bitter" and his ideas "crap."
–He claims he met secretly with TIC chairman Don Bren, one of California's wealthiest billionaires and its most successful commercial and housing developer, and was encouraged, he claims, to minimize public input into the park's construction.
–"I'm proud of what we achieved," he declared, while angrily dismissing reports he'd wasted $46.9 million, as records show, for architectural concept-related park plans–plans that were quickly deemed extravagant and worthless; instead, he "recalls" spending just "$37 million" on them.
–He denied any knowledge that taxpayer dollars for Great Park glossy mailers had been directed in no-bid deals for years to his longtime campaign contractor, Kenny the Printer, and his lawyer adamantly refused Taylor's request to release campaign records that would show the ties.
"To the extent that there were any invoices that he had, for his own political work that may have involved his campaigns or other political activities, that would be responsive to this request, we object on the grounds that those documents were privileged under the First Amendment right of association," Woocher opined.
–Confronted with the fact that Great Park contractors had communicated with him not by using a city government email address, but rather by his wife's private email, Agran replied he couldn't understand that either, saying, "I don't know why."
–He couldn't recall the substance of any private meeting he'd had with Great Park contractors.
–After Taylor got Agran to admit he's buddies with Yehudi Gaffen–owner of Gafcon, the recipient of one of the Great Park's most lucrative contracts–he wanted the ex-mayor to explain why the Irvine City Council voted to approve a $500,000 close-out payment to Gafcon in June 2010, though records show the amount may have been quietly increased later, without council approval, to $800,000 or, worse, that there were payments of $500,000 and $800,000.
In classic Agran form, the Harvard-trained lawyer posed as dumbfounded and tossed accountability elsewhere.
"Let me just say that resolving outstanding issues and claims was the responsibility of the Great Park staff, our [park] CEO and others, with the help of [city attorney] Phil Kohn, and presumably, if those were with the Design Studio or Gafcon, [they were] working it out with them," Agran said. "That's about all I can say at this point. . . . I'd really have to look at the documents to refresh my memory on that, if indeed I have a memory."
With Agran supposedly searching for memories of his memories, Taylor is expected to file a final Great Park audit report for the March 24 City Council meeting.