Did Consultant Charge Political Gift to Great Park?

The iconic balloon at the Orange County Great Park.

The iconic balloon at the Orange County Great Park.

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A $2,500 payment to the Democratic Party of Orange County is listed on the check register of the lead design consultant for Irvine’s Great Park, raising questions about whether the consultant illegally used public funds and charged the city for a political donation.

The document was attached as an exhibit to the deposition of Gafcon Inc. owner Yehudi Gaffen and made public late Friday. City officials have been releasing public records obtained in the course of its forensic investigation into the park’s finances.

According to Councilwoman Christina Shea — who sits on a subcommittee overseeing the probe –Gafcon over the years submitted bulk invoices that didn’t itemize costs.

Those bulk billings totaled $47 million between 2004 and 2014, and auditors requested the check register to determine what expenses San Diego-based Gafcon used to justify its invoices. None of the expenses on the document have precise dates.

Gafcon is the former managing consultant for Great Park Design Studio, the team of consultants hired to design the massive park on the site of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

About the check to the Democratic Party, Shea said, “you can’t justify giving money to the Democratic Party and charging the city for it.”

Bob Stern, a government ethics expert who helped write the state’s Political Reform Act, agrees. He says asking the city to pay for a “straight donation” to a political party would be illegal, a “misuse of public funds.”

But there are exceptions, Stern said. For example, if the consultant paid the party for a park advertisement on one of its brochures, that would not be considered illegal, he said.

In his deposition, Gafcon owner Gaffen said he couldn’t recall what the payment to the political party was for.

In addition to the payment to the Democratic Party, Shea questioned a $15,000 check to the Great Park Conservancy, a foundation that supports park development, and a $2,500 payment to the Korean American Coalition — Orange County, a group that promotes the civil rights of Korean Americans. Shea said those payments were irrelevant to the park’s design.

The Great Park Conservancy, Shea said, is a nonprofit whose mission is to raise money for the city’s project.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

In his deposition, Gaffen didn’t say much when asked by Anthony Taylor — the Aleshire & Wynder attorney brought in to help with the investigation – about the charges. But he did say the Korean organization received its payment because it was “probably a nonprofit that was involved at some time with the botanical garden,” which is one of the park’s features

The Great Park has long faced allegations of corruption as consultants — who funneled tens of thousands of dollars to campaigns to reelect the former Democratic City Council majority — were awarded no-bid contracts that critics called excessive and wasteful.

A Republican city council majority unseated the Democrats in the 2012 election and ran on campaign promises to bring fiscal accountability to the 1,300-acre project, which was supposed to rival New York’s Central Park but has so far fallen short of expectations.

The Republican council members initiated the in-depth audit last year, and Democrats on the council say the investigation is a political witch-hunt aimed at bolstering the Republicans’ election fortunes by trampling on the park’s reputation.

Shea points to what she called questionable payments now being uncovered by the audit as evidence that suspicions about the park’s finances had merit. She said auditors are examining detailed expenses of consultants that were previously unknown to the city, and the Gafcon check register was just a “snapshot.”

In addition, she said, financial records obtained from consultant Forde & Mollrich – whose former $100,000 per-month public relations contract is the poster-child for everything critics say went wrong with the park – have shown “serious problems.”

“They’re (auditors) starting to see a lot of red flags,” Shea said.

In his deposition, Gaffen refuted a range of allegations made by top park officials in their depositions – including park CEO Mike Ellzey – that the consultant mismanaged the project.

Among other criticisms, Gaffen said claims that a 500-acre plan wasn’t constructible as designed, that the Gafcon-led design team had no state licensed architect, and that the consultant spiked its profit margins by hiring low-paid, inexperienced staffers, were all inaccurate.

“The fact that Mr. Ellzey can insinuate that this was about greed was very offensive, extremely offensive,” Gaffen said in his deposition. “Whether people want to believe it or not, I believed in this project.”

Gaffen claimed Ellzey was a “dictatorial, autocratic leader,” who brought in an outside reviewer – Brendan McDevitt – for the sole purpose of booting Gafcon off the project.

The revelations about the payments to the political party come just as the Orange County District Attorney’s office has expressed interest in the audit’s findings and requested all its supporting records.

Last week, Senior Assistant DA Michael Lubinski sent a letter to Aleshire & Wynder requesting “copies of interviews, depositions and any supporting documentation that is associated with the audit, including the final report.”

“Please contact us if you uncover any possible criminal conduct or suspicious conduct related to your investigation,” the letter reads.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek

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