The Irvine City Council has hired the same law firm tasked with cleaning up the city of Bell to explore whether Irvine can sue former Great Park consultants for improper billings, according to Councilwoman Christina Shea, who sits on a subcommittee that is overseeing a forensic investigation into park contracts.

Shea’s acknowledgement came during last week’s regular council meeting when Councilwoman Beth Krom requested an update on the investigation. Krom had asked why the city changed special counsel — hiring the firm Aleshire & Wynder to replace Jones & Mayer.

Update: Shea said Thursday that, while the hiring of Aleshire & Wynder could assist the city in future lawsuits related to recovering money spent on the park, the city would only consider legal action after auditors finish an ongoing forensic investigation.

Shea said Aleshire & Wynder was hired because the firm has extensive expertise in that area of the law. But, citing confidentiality, she wouldn’t say more, so it remains unclear which former consultants might be sued or for how much.

Shea and her Republican colleagues unseated the Democratic majority in 2012 after promising to deliver fiscal accountability to the Great Park, which was supposed to rival New York’s Central Park but instead became a poster-child for government boondoggles. A forensic audit was among the Republican majority’s first official council actions.

The new Republican council majority and other critics say what has been accomplished at the park doesn’t merit the over $200 million spent, with much of that money steered to no-bid contracts for consultants who helped bankroll the Democrats’ election victories. And auditors in their preliminary report claim to have already found major waste and abuse.

However, Krom and fellow Democratic Councilman Larry Agran say the investigation is a ploy by their opponents to win elections, generate headlines and justify privatizing hundreds of acres of the park. This smear campaign, the Democrats argue, tarnishes Irvine’s carefully honed public image.

Frustrations among the Democrats reached a boiling point at the meeting, with Agran butting heads with an attorney representing Aleshire & Wynder. The attorney said Agran’s comments were veering off the agenda and potentially violating the state’s open meetings law.

“You are not in a position to censure my comment,” Agran said.

Agran and Krom complained that the two-member subcommittee, comprised of Shea and fellow Republican Jeffrey Lalloway, is overly secretive, endowed with the power to hire and fire lawyers at will and subpoena former contractors and staff. Meanwhile, the public – and even the city manager – are left in the dark, the Democrats say.

Agran also blasted the forensic audit’s price tag. He said that when you add $640,000 in contracts for the Newport Beach-based audit firm Hagen, Streiff, Newton & Oshiro Accountants, a contract for a retired judge to oversee subpoenas, special counsel and staff costs, the total cost of the investigation is approaching $1 million.

“All the things you’re investigating, you’re perpetuating with this witch hunt, masquerade of an audit,” Agran said.

Agran and Krom also took issue with an Aleshire & Wynder attorney’s public introduction, which included the attorney’s background in deposing former Bell City Manager Rober Rizzo. Rizzo and other city leaders were indicted for a massive public corruption scheme.

“To compare what has gone in the city of Irvine to the city of Bell is absolutely blasphemous,” Agran said.

In an interview before the firm was hired, David Aleshire, who is a senior partner in the firm and an Irvine resident, defended the city’s use of subpoenas to compel uncooperative consultants into producing documents and being questioned by auditors.

“It’s hard to believe that people contracting with the city, that the contracts would not require them to disclose this information and you’d have to go through this process,” Aleshire said.

Aleshire also defended the structure of the investigation’s oversight – including a retired independent judge to oversee the subpoenas – as securing the process from being overly politicized.

Shea said the results of the investigation would be publicly available in a report in as soon as two months. The results, she said, will be compelling.

“I’m sure when the report comes out you’ll be very interested,” Shea said.

Clarification: The previous headline on this story gave the impression that the city was actively preparing to sue Great Park consultants. It’s unclear whether the city will file any lawsuits. 

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