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Former Irvine City Council leader Larry Agran was grilled in a deposition released this week as part of the nearly wrapped-up investigation into spending on the Great Park project.
During the deposition, Agran faced allegations that included: a quid-pro-quo involving an election campaign contractor that also worked on park promotions; millions of dollars in billing irregularities; potential conflicts of interest between park consultants and their sub-consultants; and a contract cancellation deal with the park’s design team that allegedly paid out $800,000 more than was approved.
In several responses to the questioning, Agran said he couldn’t recall. And he flatly refused to answer questions about whether consultants who received park contracts were also volunteering for his reelection campaigns, citing First Amendment privileges to keep his associations secret.
But he stated repeatedly that he is proud of what’s been accomplished at the park, and that, in hindsight, he would have done nothing different except listen to his mother’s advice that “this, too, will pass,” an acknowledgement of his failure to foresee that the pre-recession housing boom the park’s financing plan relied on might not last forever.
“We were charged with responsibility of building a great metropolitan park. A public space. And I’m proud of the way we went about it,” Agran said.
On Tuesday, the City Council is expected to receive the final audit report — a result of investigations by the law firm Aleshire & Wynder and the auditor Hagen, Streiff, Newton & Oshiro, Accountants PC (HSNO) — and decide whether to obtain a court order forcing Agran to answer the questions he refused to answer in the deposition.
Agran’s deposition represents one of the final acts of an investigation that began in 2013 when a new Republican council majority unseated the Democratic faction, led by Agran, that had for years controlled the park project.
The Republicans say they want to get to the bottom of how over $200 million was spent on a 1,300-acre park project that has fallen far short of its once lofty goal of rivaling iconic city parks like New York’s Central Park and San Diego’s Balboa Park.
Meanwhile, Democrats and park consultants targeted by the investigation have characterized it as a political witch-hunt aimed at bolstering the Republicans’ election fortunes by smearing their opponents and trampling on the park’s reputation.
Depositions, including Agran’s, show that the auditors and attorneys conducting the investigation have lately zeroed in on a handful of consultants tied to Agran, including San Diego-based Gafcon, which co-led the park’s design team, Forde & Mollrich, the park’s public relations firm, and Kenny The Printer, which worked for both the park and Agran’s reelection campaigns.
Among other things, Agran’s deposition revealed for the first time that an attorney for the city’s program manager who oversaw billings, Bovis Lend Lease, stated in a letter that the company objected to city officials deciding to pay millions of dollars despite billing irregularities and abuses by the Great Park Design Studio, the consulting team designing the park.
Agran said he would receive complaints from staff about the format of billings, and complaints from consultants that staff was being too picky with the billings. But he said his response was always the same.
“This is a process. I’m not going to get in the middle of it,” he said.
Agran was asked about an allegation that Kenny The Printer gave him or people he’s associated with discounts for campaign work in exchange for park contracts.
He denied the allegation, but said he did recommend to the owner that the company bid for a park contract. He said the first time he knew for sure Kenny The Printer even had a park contract was when he received his deposition subpoena. He also refused to turn over campaign records related to the contractor.
The former council leader was also asked about whether he knew about work Gafcon was performing on the home of Stu Mollrich, a principal at the firm Forde & Mollrich. The company’s $120,000 per-month no-bid contract to conduct a public relations campaign for the park became the symbol of what park critics said was a culture of waste surrounding the park project.
Gafcon did the work on Mollrich’s Laguna Beach home at a 30 percent discount, according to Aleshire & Wynder attorney Anthony Taylor’s statements in the deposition. The work was the target of an IRS audit, Aleshire said, and he questioned Agran about a Gafcon billing change to show that Gafcon had done the work through Stu Mollrich Communications instead of for Stu Mollrich.
Forde & Mollrich was a subconsultant for the Great Park Design Studio, co-led by Gafcon, and Stu Mollrich Communications had also done work on the park.
Agran said he didn’t know, but had the arrangement been brought to his attention along with an allegation of impropriety, he would have referred it to the city manager for investigation.
In a statement sent to Voice of OC, Gafcon said that the company wasn’t in charge of approving Forde & Mollrich invoices, and therefore no conflict of interest existed. Gafcon has fought back against allegations in the audit more than any of the other targets, publishing a video deriding allegations against the firm as false or misleading.
“Gafcon had no approval or management role over Forde & Mollrich’s invoices or work, yet continues to receive blame without any factual basis,” said Paul Najar, Gafcon general counsel. “After rebutting over 60 allegations against us, we continue to question why this so called ‘audit’ continues to unfairly target Gafcon.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the action taken by the IRS regarding work done on Stu Mollrich’s home. It was an audit, not an investigation.