The iconic balloon at the Orange County Great Park.

Designs of major Great Park features – a man-made lake, hundreds of acres in park land and a wildlife corridor — were so poor that they couldn’t be built as presented in schematic documents, the park’s former program manager testified in a deposition released this week.

Brendan McDevitt told auditors that the lake couldn’t be built because the U.S. Navy – which was concerned with cleaning up contaminated groundwater – wouldn’t have allowed the necessary excavation.

And other designs – like the planned flow of “enormous” amounts of water into a wildlife corridor – were not logistically possible, according to McDevitt’s testimony. The corridor had to be redesigned from scratch after spending “north” of $500,000, he said.

Unnecessary spending on unrealistic plans could have been prevented with skilled leadership that should have spotted obvious flaws in the consultants’ presentations, according to the testimony.

But the Irvine City Council and park board directors were so inexperienced in major projects that they were easily fooled by design consultants who took advantage of them, McDevitt told auditors. 

“There’s a great board meeting you should watch of Pat Fuscoe and [master designer] Ken Smith presenting the plan, and it’s absolutely unbuildable,” McDevitt said, referring to a plan to construct 500 acres of the park. “Their argument for why you could build that much acreage for [$30 million or $40 million] is because it’s – it’s wide and shallow, which doesn’t have any engineering definition. It means nothing. But it sounds good, you know.”

McDevitt’s testimony is the latest in a series of depositions taken in the course of a forensic investigation by Newport Beach-based Hagen, Streiff, Newton & Oshiro Accountants into what happened to well over $200 million spent on the 1,300-acre project.

The Great Park was supposed to rival New York’s Central Park but instead became a poster-child for government boondoggles, critics argue.

They argue up to $260 million was wasted on no-bid contracts with little to no oversight – and awarded to consultants who financed the campaigns of the former council majority — among other costs.

Meanwhile, critics of the audit — including former consultants and the council’s minority Democratic bloc, which controlled the park until Republicans unseated the faction in the 2012 election – say it is little more than a political witch hunt aimed at discrediting the Democrats by soiling the park’s reputation.

They warn this is all a set up for a massive privatization of parkland. 

McDevitt’s testimony on some levels reflected a sworn deposition given by park CEO Mike Ellzey, who had brought McDevitt into the project in 2008 to help evaluate the park’s schematic design process.

Like Ellzey, McDevitt claimed that consultants – particularly San Diego-based Gafcon Inc., the project manager – at times refused to take direction. 

The park’s former Chairman – current Democratic Councilman Larry Agran – had such a close relationship with Gafcon and Arnold Forde, principal of the public relations consultant Forde & Mollrich, that city staff were essentially working for the very consultants they were supposed to be overseeing, Ellzey testified.

Before McDevitt called for an end to the schematic design contract with the Great Park Design Studio – a joint venture between Ken Smith and Gafcon — the $27.3 million dollar agreement went through 50 change orders and had ballooned to $42.7 million.

Eventually, McDevitt was able to convince the consultants that the park should be designed and implemented piecemeal, rather than all at once, which was how things were going until McDevitt came on board, he testified. But convincing the consultants to take direction from their client was tough, according to McDevitt.

“It was very difficult, and I was the bad guy for a long time,” he said. 

There were other problems also, McDevitt testified. A document access software known as SharePoint 360 – owned by the wife of Gafcon owner Yehudi Gaffen – didn’t work for city staff, he told auditors.

And in order to make as much money as possible under fixed fee contracts, Gafcon would hire inexperienced kids right out of college and staff key positions with unqualified people, leading to change orders and revisions, despite the fact that their “primary responsibility” was to hire qualified employees, according to McDevitt.

“One of their approaches to this is to negotiate the highest fixed fee and put the least expensive people on it so that the profit margin was higher. And they would deliver a product that didn’t satisfy, but they would claim that it did,” McDevitt said. 

According to McDevitt, Gafcon submitted a program management plan a year and a half late. Time sheets and invoices were submitted weeks, even years old. And the Great Park Design Studio – a joint venture between Gafcon and master designer Ken Smith – refused to turn over subconsultants’ invoices, so costs couldn’t be justified, McDevitt said.

When McDevitt asked for the invoice backup, he was told it was none of his business, he told auditors.

“In my experience, when a client asks you for the backup to your invoice, you provide it,” he said.

McDevitt wasn’t the only person involved in the project who thought it should have been built piecemeal.

The city also released the deposition of former board director Dick Sim, who is also a former Irvine Co. executive with experience in developing large projects. Sim, a Republican and Agran opponent, claims in his testimony that he objected to the idea to design and built more than 1,000 acres of the park all at once and pushed for building the project in phases.

But because Agran had such singular authority, Sim was rebuffed, he testified. He eventually resigned out of frustration with what he thought was incompetent planning and disgust over no-bid contracts.

“When I hear Larry Agran say that we are on time and on budget I say shame on you, you just wasted $95 million in plans designing a project that will never get built,” Sim told auditors. “If that’s not waste, I don’t know what is.” 

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