Civic leaders in Irvine have authorized the use of subpoenas to help auditors dig deeper into an investigation of the financial management of the Orange County Great Park.
The City Council voted 3 to 2 this week to move forward with a forensic audit after a preliminary report raised questions about spending, contracts and oversight of the planned 1,300-acre park, which has been in the works for more than a decade.
Council members Larry Agran and Beth Krom, who helped steward the project from its beginnings until they lost the council majority in the 2012 city election, denounced the decision, which Krom called a "witch hunt."
"What I fear we are witnessing here tonight is the apex of a campaign of lies, distortions and misrepresentations with respect to the Orange County Great Park," Krom said.
Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Lalloway said Irvine residents want to know how money earmarked for the Great Park was spent.
"The most important question I get," Lalloway said, "is what happened to all that money for what we have out there."
About $215 million has been spent on the ambitious plan to transform the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro into a metropolitan park, but only 230 acres have been developed. When the park plan was pitched to voters in a countywide election, proponents said it would someday rival San Diego's Balboa Park or even Central Park in New York City.
Last year, the council majority abandoned part of the park's grand design and instead approved a developer's proposal to build a golf course, sports complex and other amenities on 688 acres in exchange for the right to build 4,600 additional homes along its perimeter.
The first audit, which was approved by the council last year and presented earlier this month, faulted Great Park leadership for allowing contractors to use excessive change orders, not fully vetting major vendors, and paying a communications and strategy firm $6.3 million under contracts for the park's design.
The report by accounting firm Hagen, Streiff, Newton & Oshiro also found that about 38% of all contracts for amounts more than $100,000 were awarded without competitive bids.
Auditors told the council that the investigation was hamstrung because several key players, including the park's primary contractors, refused to talk with them.
This week, Gafcon Inc., one of those firms, issued a statement saying it had contacted the city's special counsel overseeing the audit to say it will cooperate, though it faulted the audit for containing "numerous factual inaccuracies, incorrect assumptions and speculative preliminary conclusions."
The first audit cost the city $240,000 and the additional investigation will cost $400,000.