Public funds were not used for a $2,500 donation to the Democratic Party of Orange County, a spokesman for the donor, Gafcon Inc., said Monday in response to questions raised by City Councilwoman Christina Shea.
But Shea said even with Gafcon's response, she still has "questions and concerns" about whether city funds intended to develop the city's Great Park were used to make the political contribution. She said lawyers for the city are continuing to investigate.
Controversy over the more than $200 million spent so far to develop the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into a Great Park has spilt city leadership along party lines, with Shea and other members of the Republican majority conducting a detailed financial investigation into nearly a decade of spending.
In an Aug. 30 Voice of OC article, Shea questioned whether a check register from San Diego-based Gafcon, the firm that managed the Great Park Design Studio consulting team, showed Gafcon used public funds to pay for the donation.
But Alan Ziegaus, chairman of the public relations firm Southwest Strategies, LLC and a Gafcon spokesman, said Monday once Gafcon was paid, the money no longer was public funds and could be used for general company expenses. He said the check register doesn't show expenses billed to the city.
"It may seem like a nuance difference, but it's a significant difference," Ziegaus said in a telephone interview. "It's not public funds. It was paid to a private entity."
Ziegaus earlier wrote in an emailed response to Voice of OC that the check register cannot be interpreted as an accounting of how city funds were used, but actually shows “internal business funds,” and “not what was invoiced to the city.”
“The City’s attorney requested that the Design Studio provide the check register for the apparent purpose of understanding the Design Studio’s business expenditures,” Ziegaus wrote. “Any allegation that the Great Park Design Studio or Gafcon used public funds for a political donation is completely false.”
Statements from Anthony Taylor, the attorney with Aleshire & Wynder LLP assisting Irvine with the forensic investigation, don’t match Gafcon’s claim about the why the check register was requested.
The check register was provided “in response to questions during the audit about the overall charges to the city,” Taylor wrote in an email to Voice of OC in the course of reporting for the initial article.
“We're continuing to review all of the different types of overhead charges Design Studio has claimed support their overall charges to the City before making any final conclusions in the Audit,” Taylor wrote.
Ziegaus, in his email, also shed more light on the expenditure, which as it appeared in the check register didn’t specify a date or purpose.
He confirmed that it was a 2008 political donation to the Democratic party to “sponsor a table at the annual Harry S. Truman Awards, an event that honored leading female mayors of Orange County.”
However, he wrote that “it is irresponsible to suggest that an item contained in a check register indicates that the donation was charged to the City for payment or reimbursement.”
Shea had also challenged whether other expenditures allegedly billed to the city were appropriate, including payments to the Korean American Coalition – Orange County, a group that promotes the civil rights of Korean Americans, and the Great Park Conservancy, a foundation that supports park development.
Ziegaus wrote again that “no donations or contributions of any sort were charged to the City by the Design Studio.”
Ziegaus also took issue with Shea’s claim that the Design Studio submitted bulk invoices that didn’t itemize costs, asserting that “the Design Studio submitted invoices in the format required by its contracts with the City” and that independent “contract compliance auditors” found “no material findings related to invoices submitted by the city.”
“Notably, Design Studio invoices were reviewed in detail by the City’s independent Program Manager Bovis Lend Lease and the Orange County Great Park Corporation staff before being approved by City staff and ultimately paid,” Ziegaus wrote.