Great Park audit brings back-and-forth allegations of misconduct

Volunteers organize pieces of the concrete from broken-up runways to be given away as mementos during a recent groundbreaking at the Great Park.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

A week after a developer broke ground on a scaled-back version of Irvine’s long-planned Orange County Great Park, a bitter fight over the site renewed this week as city-hired auditors and Councilman Larry Agran leveled dueling allegations of misconduct.

The latest flare-up came as attorneys from the firm Aleshire and Wynder gave the Irvine City Council a status update Tuesday night on an ongoing forensic audit looking into how more than $200 million was spent in planning the park while just a small piece of it was constructed.

The Great Park was pitched to the community more than a decade ago as a way to transform the decaying former El Toro Marine air base into a showpiece public amenity to rival Central Park in New York City.

Last year, after a long, contentious debate, a new Republican City Council majority voted to strike a deal with developer FivePoint Communities to build a scaled-down 688-acre portion of the 1,300-acre park in exchange for the right to build thousands of homes around the park’s edge.

The audit of the planning process had been expected to be complete in September. But, as Aleshire and Wynder attorney Anthony Taylor told the council Tuesday, factors including a recent decision by the Orange County district attorney’s office to review the audit for its own investigation, as well as a back-and-forth with political consulting firm Forde and Mollrich over documents, have resulted in a delay.

He said the full audit could take one to two more months.

Though the audit’s findings are not complete, Taylor laid out issues that the firm believes merit a closer look.

He aired concerns over whether an agreement closing out contracts with the Great Park Design Studio was properly approved by the City Council in June 2010. He said council members voted to approve an agreement paying the Design Studio about $550,000. But in reality, the Design Studio was paid more than $1.4 million, without council approval.

“We have decided that if the city has claims it wishes to pursue against the Design Studio, that agreement is subject to being voided because it was not on the agenda package,” Taylor said.

Paul Najar, general counsel for Gafcon — a project management firm that ran the Great Park Design Studio alongside master designer Ken Smith — strongly disagreed.

“I’m here tonight because our company has been unfairly abused for more than a year by false allegations, misleading depositions that have trickled out during the most recent Great Park audit,” he said. He added that Gafcon has complied with auditors and that the company did its job.

A discussion ensued about whether Gafcon should be allowed to show its video rebuttal to allegations in the audit. The video is posted on a website called Ultimately, the company was allowed to show a three-minute portion of it.

Additionally, Taylor said that based on deposition testimony taken as part of the audit, political consultant Arnold Forde acted as a “de facto project manager,” despite having no technical expertise or college degree.

Officials involved in the park’s planning testified that Forde had a close relationship with Agran, one of the park’s most ardent champions over the years.

Forde, Taylor said, “has a background in various political matters, but he does not have an engineering background or the type of qualifications that would put him in the middle of a project that was estimated to be over a billion dollars.”

Taylor added that there were discrepancies in the way Forde and Mollrich’s $100,000-a-month retainer for public relations and strategy work was accounted for.

Further, he said, questions have arisen about whether a professional relationship between Forde and Mollrich and legal firm Rutan & Tucker, which does city attorney work for Irvine, should have been disclosed as a potential conflict of interest.

In an emailed statement Wednesday, Forde and Mollrich partner Stu Mollrich wrote that Taylor’s presentation was “disgraceful” and “continues [a] pattern of false, misleading and defamatory allegations against Forde and Mollrich and our employees.”

Agran fired back against allegations that he allowed the design process to be unduly swayed by highly paid consultants, including Forde and Yehudi Gaffen, Gafcon’s chief executive.

From the dais Tuesday, he accused his council colleagues of misusing more than $1 million in public funds for the audit, which he has described as a political witch hunt. In a letter, he asked state Attorney General Kamala Harris to look into the matter.

“The conduct of the Great Park forensic investigation constitutes a misuse of public funds and provides a template for political corruption throughout California,” Agran wrote. “It enables a political majority of a City Council to use public funds — without proper oversight by city staff or anyone else — to investigate and damage the reputations of potential rivals.”

Agran wrote that he addressed the letter to Harris rather than Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas because Rackauckas has endorsed Councilman Jeff Lalloway, a member of the Irvine council majority, for reelection and “may have a conflict of interest.”

Meanwhile, Orange County watchdogs Bill Mitchell and Shirley Grindle have called on Harris’ office to remove Rackauckas from any investigation into the Great Park, alleging conflict of interest stemming from past political ties to Agran.

Rackauckas’ chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder, called their letter to Harris’ office “asinine” and said it’s the latest in a series of “dozens of letters” that Grindle has written since 1999 alleging similar conflicts of interest.

Grindle, she said, “is a gadfly who desperately needs to get a hobby besides writing letters to the attorney general about the district attorney.”