Irvine city leaders order O.C. Great Park audit, may issue subpoenas

Civic leaders in Irvine have authorized the use of subpoenas to help auditors delve deeper into an investigation of the financial management of the Orange County Great Park.

The City Council voted 3-2 Tuesday to move forward with a forensic audit after a preliminary report raised questions about spending, contracts and oversight of the 1,300-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 city's 2012 elections, denounced the  decision, which Krom called a “witch hunt.”

Great Park: Where did all the money go?

“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 money was spent.

“The most important question I get,” said Lalloway, "is what happened to all that money for what we have out there.”

About $215 million has been spent on the ambitious park plan, 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 the accounting firm of 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 with “all reasonable and appropriate requests” though it faulted the audit for containing “numerous factual inaccuracies, incorrect assumptions and speculative preliminary conclusions.”

The first report said Gafcon declined an in-person interview, which was not in keeping with a cooperation clause in the firm’s contract. The firm did offer to respond to questions in writing.

The first audit cost the city $240,000 and the additional investigation will cost $400,000.

Twitter: @PalomaEsquivel

Esquivel writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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