The question by an attorney assisting in Irvine's Great Park investigation to Stu Mollrich, co-owner of Forde & Mollrich -- the public relations firm that has become a poster child for excess spending at the park -- couldn't have been more straightforward.
“How would the public be able to determine the bang for the buck that it received for your services?” asked the attorney, Stephen Onstot, during the second deposition of Mollrich in the nearly 18-month long investigation into the park project.
The "buck" Onstot refers to is the $7.2 million Forde & Mollrich was paid to promote the park since 2005, part of over $200 million spent on a massive public works project that has largely failed to live up to the expectations of voters who approved it in 2002.
Mollrich was direct in his response to the question, saying his firm absolutely earned its fees by producing media reports that included “publicity value” worth “millions of dollars." He added that "through our efforts, we were able to help the City of Irvine create a – an asset and a brand worth billions of dollars."
Mollrich, however, was less direct when grilled about taxpayers compensating his company to help edit or draft council members’ speeches; the routing of money involving a different Mollrich-owned entity; construction services provided by another park consultant at Mollrich’s home; and his relationship with Phil Kohn, Irvine's city attorney from 2006 to 2013.
The investigation was commissioned in 2013 by members of the city's current Republican council majority, who unseated the previous Democratic majority largely by running on platforms of fiscal accountability for the park.
Mollrich and other consultants targeted by the audit describe the enterprise as a political witch-hunt aimed at bolstering the election fortunes of the council’s Republicans by trampling on the park’s reputation and the Democrats who previously controlled the park.
The audit has stretched on for nearly two years, and the price tag is now at over $1.3 million.
The Mollrich deposition, which was released on Dec. 26, read like a wrap-up interview, with Onstot at the end asking Mollrich to provide any information that would assist auditors as they wade through documents and attempt to determine whether Forde & Mollrich was overpaid for its work.
Mollrich was defiant, saying if auditors would include findings that his firm didn’t get a chance to respond to, it would be “fundamentally unfair and – in keeping with the way this entire inquiry has been conducted related to my firm.”
Onstot shot back that the audit isn’t “an attempt to put things on the table for you to see,” but rather an effort to put together the “pieces of the puzzle.”
The attorney also pointed out that Mollrich had previously replied with an “emphatic no” when asked in a deposition if he had done work for council members, yet auditors found out later that he had written speeches for Councilwoman Beth Krom and former Mayor Sukhee Kang.
Onstot said that work on Kang’s speeches could “lead to the conclusion that you billed for or you were compensated for doing work that was outside the scope of the Forde & Mollrich contract for Great Park.”
In the deposition, Mollrich said the speeches included references to the park and were therefore under the firm’s contracted scope of services. In an email to Voice of OC, Mollrich said he never denied helping council members on work related to the Great Park.
Onstot also asked Mollrich asked about his and his company’s relationship with Kohn, the former city attorney who gave legal advice to city leaders as they dealt with the Great Park’s consulting contracts.
The attorney alleged in the deposition that Rutan & Tucker, was “representing Irvine at the same time they were representing Forde & Mollrich” and questioned Mollrich about the relationship.
Mollrich said that Paul Marx, another attorney from Rutan & Tucker, had also worked for Mollrich and possible his partner in the public relations firm, Arnold Forde.
Last year, Kohn worked with Forde & Mollrich in an effort to draft a ballot initiative to revive redevelopment agencies. The initiative never made the ballot. Kohn also worked with Forde & Mollrich on Proposition 10 in the late 1990s or early 2000s, according to Mollrich’s testimony.
Onstot broached another potential conflict of interest with questions to Mollrich about construction management work that Gafcon, another Great Park contractor, had done on a remodel of his personal residence. Mollrich paid Gafcon partially through his consulting firm Stu Mollrich Communications, Mollrich testified, as well as from personal funds.
There was no contract for Gafcon’s work at Mollrich’s home, Mollrich testified.
Also, in 2008, the year that Gafcon worked on Mollrich’s home, the joint venture involving Gafcon– called Design Studio – was paying Forde & Mollrich as a subcontractor for Great Park work. Meanwhile, Forde & Mollrich was paying Stu Mollrich Communications, which was also paying money back to Gafcon for “business development consulting services,” according to the testimony.
In a statement emailed to Voice of OC, Gafcon representative Alan Ziegaus wrote that “there was nothing intriguing or particularly interesting about” the work on Mollrich’s home, that the Gafcon team on that project was separate from the Great Park team, and that “there was no conflict of interest related to the work.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled attorney Stephen Onstot's name. We regret the error.