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State will investigate Great Park audit

The state auditor will investigate an audit of the Orange County Great Park that required more time and money than expected and prompted charges that it was politically motivated.

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted 8 to 1 on Tuesday to move forward with the review. It was the third time the issue was placed on the panel's agenda by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego).

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Gafcon Inc., a construction design firm headquartered in her district, was a Great Park subcontractor and was investigated during the park audit.

Gonzalez proposed an investigation at the committee's April meeting. At that time, the item was denied, despite a 9-3 overall vote in favor, because the audit request did not have the required balance of at least four "yes" votes by both the state Assembly and Senate members of the committee.

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The item was presented on the committee's agenda again in June but was withdrawn the morning of the hearing with no specific reason given.

The most recent vote won the support of four Assembly members and four Senate members, all Democrats. Nine of the 14 committee members voted, with others abstaining and only Sen. Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield) voting no.

The focus of the review will be the performance of the Great Park audit subcommittee, consisting of Irvine City Councilwoman Christina Shea and Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Lalloway. The audit was approved by the City Council in January 2013 with an original budget of $240,000 and the expectation that it would be completed in four months. The final report was presented in March after more than two years and at a cost in excess of $1.3 million.

The examination of the audit is expected to take about six months. The cost is estimated at just over $251,000.

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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 covered in the audit, are central figures in the audit report. The report concluded that the project was rife with mismanagement and budgetary irresponsibility. More than $200 million was spent on the project between 2005 and 2012, while the park remains far from the vision of it rivaling Balboa Park in San Diego or even Central Park in New York City.

Findings left the door open for legal action for potential professional negligence, false claims or conflicts of interest, allowing the possibility of recovering money paid to contractors.

Gonzalez argued that Gafcon's reputation and business suffered significantly as a result, and the audit process may have been drawn out for election purposes.

A Gafcon official statement said the audit was "riddled with falsehoods."

Gafcon principal Yehudi Gaffen testified at a committee hearing in April that his company "lost millions" and "did not win one job in 2014 because of this so-called audit."

Agran was voted out of office in November after 28 years as a City Council member, including three terms as mayor.

Lalloway levied a countercharge of partisan political motivation after the review was approved this week.

"It's my name they're dragging through the mud here," Lalloway said. "Former (Irvine) Mayor Sukhee Kang, a Democrat, is now running for state Senate, and he does not come off well in the audit report. I think Democrats at the state level are working together to minimize the damage to his campaign."

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A delegation of 10 Republican legislators from Orange County led by Assemblyman Don Wagner (R-Irvine) lobbied against reviewing the audit. In letters to Joint Legislative Audit Committee Chairman Mike Gibson (D-Carson) in June and again last week, the group said it would be "redundant, wasteful, disruptive and contrary to the mission of the committee."

Wagner's letter cited the Orange County Grand Jury investigation report titled "A Legacy of Hubris," released this year. It echoed the Great Park audit report.

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