More testimony points to cronyism, waste in Great Park project

Mounting testimony from an audit of the $200 million effort to transform a retired Orange County military base into one of America's great municipal parks paints the picture of a runaway project that was eventually undermined by waste, dysfunction and cronyism.

New testimony released this week is part of hundreds of pages of deposition transcripts made public by the city of Irvine in the past couple of weeks. The full audit is expected to be complete this month.

Former park officials said the Great Park project was commandeered by a longtime Irvine councilman and described the design process under his watch as being so disorganized that at one point it was likened to a ship adrift at sea.

Councilman Larry Agran, an ardent booster of the park, fostered an environment of cronyism by bringing aboard consultants who served as his chief lieutenants and then giving them nearly unchecked power, the transcripts allege.

Witnesses deposed for the audit said the consultants, one with a long, colorful history in California politics, were allowed to rack up enormous bills as they championed virtually impossible visions.

"Once Larry Agran and his group took control of this thing, there were no budgets," testified former Irvine Co. CEO Richard Sim, who served on the Great Park board. "It was like the sky was the limit."

Sim said contracts were not properly put out to bid and instead were steered to the councilman's associates — people whom city staff members derisively referred to as "FOL," or "Friends of Larry."

Sim said a disregard for good business practices, and the fear of potential illegal activity, drove him to resign from the board after about two years.

Agran, who served as chairman of the Great Park Corp. for five years of the period covered by the audit (2005-12), dismissed accusations that project consultants were allowed to run freely under his watch, saying such criticism is unfounded and politically motivated.

"This is a taxpayer-funded political witch hunt," he said, emphasizing that his critics have failed to "find even one dollar unaccounted for."

The depositions are part of an ongoing forensic audit by accounting firm Hagen, Streiff, Newton & Oshiro examining how Irvine spent more than $200 million developing plans for the 1,300-acre Great Park with little broken ground to show for it. What started as a vision for a showpiece in the vein of San Diego's Balboa Park or even New York City's Central Park has been scaled back.

A builder has agreed to develop a golf course, sports complex and other amenities on a portion of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in exchange for the right to build thousands of homes along the park's perimeter.

"We had a saying amongst the insiders," testified William Kogerman, a former Great Park board member and a retired Marine. "We never seem to have enough money to do it right, but we always have enough money to do it over."

Kogerman said he had a feeling of constant whiplash during his tenure.

Ideas that seemed to gain traction among board members would be dropped without explanation, while others — such as a canyon carved from the earth — were allowed to proceed without realistic assessments of their feasibility, he testified.

"The idea of being able to build a canyon and a lake and a cultural center and stay within what everybody was talking about at the time, a $1.3 billion budget, was lunacy," Kogerman said.

Meanwhile, Great Park officials testified that consultants with close ties to Agran treated city staff members like their employees, rather than the other way around.

Assistant City Manager Mike Ellzey — then the Great Park Corp.'s chief executive — persuaded consultant Brendan McDevitt to work as a sort of advocate for the city in 2008, McDevitt told an auditor.

McDevitt said staff from the consulting firm Gafcon, which ran the Great Park Design Studio along with designer Ken Smith, resisted his attempts to get a handle on the firm's expenses.

"If there was a name-drop opportunity, they would do it," he testified.

Ellzey testified that Gafcon's owner, Yehudi Gaffen, seemed to have Agran's ear and that as a result, Design Studio staff members were able to operate uninhibited by the city's concerns.

Officials at Gafcon have rejected claims of wrongdoing. In one statement they called them "at best ... gross misstatements of the facts, and at worst ... direct lies."

In another statement, Gafcon defended its work at the Great Park Design Studio, saying it was completed "on time and under budget."

Similarly, officials alleged, political consultant Arnold Forde's firm, Forde & Mollrich, was awarded exorbitant no-bid contracts to publicize the park because of Forde's ties to Agran.

Asked whether he thought Agran was directing Forde — whose firm was being paid a $100,000 monthly retainer for its work on the park — or Forde was directing Agran, Sim responded, "I was never sure."

Forde's partner, Stu Mollrich, reached Thursday, questioned the validity of the testimony. "It is no coincidence this so-called audit is scheduled to be released immediately in advance of November elections," he said.

Mollrich said he had already been deposed as part of the audit and that Forde was scheduled to speak with audit attorneys.

He said no one from the firm "exercised authority that was not derived from the elected officials and the board members that we served."

Agran, too, disputed claims that his relationships with any contractors were out of line.

Ultimately, he said, he's proud of the park features that have been installed, such as the iconic orange balloon. The council's recent decision to set aside 125 acres of parkland for a veterans cemetery is another sign of progress, he said.

"I viewed my job as chair as being to encourage and facilitate," Agran said. "Some people thought that was unwanted activism — that's too bad. It's not my problem and it shouldn't be the public's problem."

Irvine Mayor Steven Choi, who has pushed hard for an accounting of the Great Park spending, doesn't see it that way.

"People can read the direct words that appeared in the depositions," he said. "From that view, it is quite alarming that all the finger-pointing goes to one individual — and you know who that person is."

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