Second request for Great Park Audit investigation is dropped

A push to have the audit of the Orange County Great Park examined in the Legislature hit a second wall Wednesday when Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) abruptly withdrew her request before a meeting of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee in Sacramento.

Gonzalez had proposed an investigation at the joint meeting in April at the urging of construction design firm Gafcon, a Great Park subcontractor headquartered in her district. At that time, the item was denied approval, despite a 9-3 overall vote in favor, because the request did not have the required balance of at least four yes votes by both the state Assembly and Senate members of the committee.

In January 2013, the Irvine City Council approved conducting the audit of the Great Park work at an original budget of $240,000. A subcommittee of Irvine council members Christina Shea and Jeffrey Lalloway was charged with overseeing the audit. The final report was presented in March after more than two years and at a cost in excess of $1.2 million.

The audit report concluded that the construction of the park was rife with mismanagement and budgetary irresponsibility, noting that more than $200 million had been spent on the project between 2005 and 2012. Findings left the door open for legal action to recover money paid to contractors based on potential professional negligence, false claims or conflicts of interest.

Gafcon, Newport Beach public relations firm Forde & Mollrich and former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, who oversaw the Great Park project for five of the seven years in question, are all central figures in the report. After 28 years as a City Council member, including three terms as mayor, Agran was voted out of office last November.

Gonzalez argued in April that the audit process may have been drawn out for election purposes and that Gafcon's reputation and business suffered significantly as a result. At the same hearing, Gafcon principal Yehudi Gaffen testified that his company "lost millions" and "did not win one job in 2014 because of this so-called audit."

Exactly why Gonzalez dropped her second request at the June 17 committee meeting remains unclear. Attempts to reach the assemblywoman were unsuccessful, and a representative from her legislative office said only that Gonzalez will "continue to monitor the situation" and may still file a request for an investigation at a future joint meeting.

Legislators opposed to the "audit of the audit" have speculated that the item did not have enough support to pass, prompting Gonzalez to withdraw the request.

"All I know is she withdrew the item, and I'm gratified that she has," said Assemblyman Don Wagner (R-Irvine). "I thank Lorena for withdrawing the request."

Representing a delegation of Republican legislators from Orange County, Wagner wrote a letter to Joint Legislative Audit Committee Chairman Mike Gibson (D-Carson) urging that it deny the audit request.

The letter was co-signed by state Sens. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), Bob Huff (R-San Dimas), John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa ) and Janet Nguyen (R-Garden Grove), along with assembly members Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach), William Brough (R-Dana Point), Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar), Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach ) and Young Kim (R-Fullerton).

Gafcon spokesman Paul Najar said the lobbying effort against the investigation is troubling. Najar said defensive efforts of Irvine Mayor Steven Choi and special counsel Anthony Taylor at the April joint committee meeting prevent transparency of the audit process.

An official statement issued by Gafcon said the audit is "riddled with falsehoods" and concludes: "We are perplexed as to why the City Council is spending so much additional public money to oppose a review by the non-partisan state auditor if they have nothing to hide."

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