By Tracy Wood
Arnold (Arnie) Forde, identified in depositions as the secret boss behind Irvine’s Great Park, has been a publicity-shy mainstay of both Republican and Democratic California political campaigns for nearly half a century.
He and his partners are famous within political circles for innovative, exceptionally effective direct mail fundraising and campaign strategies on behalf of political candidates, nonprofit groups and governments.
At the same time, Forde and his associates have amassed a catalog of critics for their ethics and tactics.
At one point, Orange County Superior Court Judge Donald E. Smallwood berated Forde and his former partner, campaign consultant William Butcher, for “hoodwinking” the public with “fraudulent” fund-raising tactics.
Through it all, Forde and his business partners were known for making money. A lot of money.
But the methods used by Forde and his partners to get themselves paid are what set off Smallwood in the 1995 court case and, today, puts Forde in the Irvine spotlight.
Former Great Park CEO Michael Ellzey said in depositions released July 21 that behind-the-scenes, it was Forde and another Irvine city consultant, not city staff, who really were in control of the park. And if Forde and the other consultant didn’t like proposed cuts, city staff “would be told to shove it, basically.”
Forde did not respond to an email and follow-up telephone call from Voice of OC requesting an interview.
Depositions Put Forde in Secret Control of Great Park
Forde’s current firm, Newport Beach-based Forde & Mollrich, has received more than $7 million to promote the park, according to city auditors. They also ran the 2002 campaign in which voters rejected the former El Toro Marine base as a commercial airport. Instead, the onetime military base was supposed to become the Great Park.
More than $200 million has been spent on the park, which was expected to rival New York’s Central Park, but the current Irvine City Council majority has complained there is too little to show for the spending. They hired outside auditors to find out where the money went.
Ellzey said in his deposition Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran had such a close relationship with Forde and another of the park’s private consultants that Ellzey and the rest of the park’s staff were, in effect, working for the very consultants they were supposed to be overseeing.
Yehudi Gaffen of the Los Angeles project management consulting firm Gafcon Inc. and Forde are both close to Agran, according to Ellzey’s deposition.
“I began to figure out that, at best, Yehudi Gaffen was my counterpart, and at worst, I was, de facto working for him. Certainly working for Arnold Forde,” Ellzey said in his deposition.
“It was just wrong that a contractor/consultant was directing a public body,” he added.
When he identified wasteful spending, the contractors blocked his efforts to curtail it, Ellzey said.
“It was one of those things where if we eventually rose to the level of trying to shut down something that we didn’t believe was…worth our investment, it would go to…Gaffen, it would go to Arnold Forde, it would come back, and we would be told to shove it, basically,” Ellzey said.
The Orange County Register reported July 22 that “Gaffen’s company, Gafcon, issued a written statement denying the facts and tone of the depositions.
‘Gafcon is appalled by the continued misinformation being released regarding the Orange County Great Park project.
‘None of these statements are true. At best, these are gross misstatements of the facts, and at worst, they are direct lies.’”
Who is Arnold Forde?
Forde, 78, a Republican, is “very talented, very honest, very conscientious about his clients’ interests,” said Butcher in a telephone interview. “I never knew him to do anything inappropriate.”
From his home atop a Laguna Beach cliff overlooking the ocean, Forde collects modern art, and enjoys rooting for the Lakers. But he avoids the limelight.
“He’s very outgoing about things he’s interested in” like art and sports, said Butcher. “He’s not very outgoing about things he’s not interested in. He’s not a hail-fellow-well-met” personality, the kind who “is willing to talk to anybody about anything.”
Forde first gained political attention in the 1960s when he and Butcher formed Butcher-Forde Consulting.
At the height of their political and financial success, they called themselves the “Darth Vaders of Direct Mail.”
Forde’s clients, according to his web site, have included Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in his first term and Republicans Sen. Pete Wilson and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Forde and his partners helped run the 1986 campaign that caused Rose Bird to lose her re-election, the only California Supreme Court chief justice to be turned aside by voters.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is another politician who used Forde and his ties to Agran to help with his 2002 election, according to the OCWeekly. Rackauckas also was active in the 1986 anti-Rose Bird campaign.
Perhaps most famously, Forde and his former partner Butcher, were instrumental in 1978’s voter approval of Proposition 13, the ballot initiative that limits property taxes.