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Larry Agran Spent $200 Million At Great Park, But His Adviser Scores New York Times Story

By R. Scott Moxley

We once could have imagined The New York Times sending a future reporter to a completed Orange County Great Park in Irvine for an awe-inspiring article in the paper’s “Great Homes & Destinations” section. Don’t laugh. There’s no shame in being fooled a decade ago. That’s when Irvine political boss Larry Agran promised OC that the decommissioned El Toro Marine Air Corps Station wouldn’t just be filled with new houses.

The failed, 1992 Democratic presidential candidate said the development plan included man-made canyons, waterfalls and wildlife corridors; an architecturally impressive sports stadium and amphitheater; breathtaking university buildings; botanical gardens and a conservatory; and Smithsonian-caliber museums. Agran even guaranteed the Great Park would be bigger and more impressive than Manhattan’s Central Park and San Diego’s Balboa Park. All Irvine voters had to do to reap that historic milestone was to keep him and his political machine in control of the city.

This month, a Times reporter with “Great Homes & Destinations” did focus on Orange County, though the story wasn’t about the Great Park–at least directly. That’s no surprise. During Agran’s 12-year reign, not a single major proposed feature was built even though $200 million evaporated from the park construction kitty.

Where did all that taxpayer money go?

Well, there is an orange balloon hovering over the property, a public-relations stunt Agran laughably hails among his major accomplishments. There’s the $125,000 playground set that, when Agran’s consultants finished submitting change orders, cost $1.25 million. There are the untold millions of dollars used for glossy mailers telling residents around election times that the park will go down in history as a model of foresight and efficiency. There’s also the $47 million spent on wildly unrealistic conceptual drawings.

Such wasteful disbursements make sense only when you understand that Agran’s objective for seven consecutive elections was remaining in power by capturing publicity for proposing a park, not actually building one. Each election, he called his political machine “The Great Park Team” and, as time progressed, told voters, who weren’t seeing progress, that construction was imminent. Said the 69-year-old man who has never bothered getting a private-sector job and hasn’t built anything tougher than a tool shed, public parks are really, really complicated projects.

Given the proposal suffered setback after setback under Agran’s incompetence and mismanagement, it took magic to keep him in power, and for that feat, we can thank Arnold Forde, his private campaign adviser who co-owns Forde & Mollrich in Newport Beach. A onetime consultant to Jerry Brown, Forde grabbed a no-bid, no-benchmark contract to take $100,000 per month in park funds in exchange for allegedly performing public-relations tasks. Never mind another successful, veteran PR firm volunteered to do the job for $85,000 less per month. The Forde deal wasn’t so much about skill–how difficult is it to promote a park?–as it was about ties to Agran, who, with the aid of loyal, robotic, sidekick Beth Krom, separately funneled another $67,000 per month to two additional pals, Democratic operatives Chris Townsend and George Urch. Townsend and Urch, by the way, also enjoyed no-bid steals. If you’re counting, those three sweetheart pacts dwindled park construction coffers by $167,000 per month.

Continue reading at the O.C. Weekly…

Arnold Forde: Half a Century of Big Time Politics

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.

Continue reading at the Voice of OC…

Great Park Insider: Larry Agran’s Corruption, Incompetence Worse Than Previously Known

R. Scott Moxley

In January 2008, Larry Agran–the leader of a three-council-member, Democratic alliance that then controlled the city of Irvine for more than half a decade–desperately needed to enlist outside professional help to manage what had spiraled out of control: plans to build the Orange County Great Park, then one of California’s largest public-works projects.
But there was a problem.

Agran, a career politician who had no clue how to build a massive public park despite his promises otherwise, didn’t just crave a competent CEO for the $1.6 billion project. The county’s living liberal icon with frightening Nixonian tendencies hoped the park would be an unbreakable monument to his legacy, so he needed someone who would obey his wishes, no matter how ridiculous or shady.

Excluding the four other elected representatives on the council, as well as the other eight members of the Great Park’s Board of Directors, Agran–a losing Democratic Party presidential-primary candidate in 1992–met Mike Ellzey at an Irvine Denny’s off I-5 on Sand Canyon Avenue.

Ellzey’s background with private corporations, at a university and as CEO of the Golden Gate Park Concourse Authority made him a suitable candidate for the Great Park job. Demonstrating his dictatorial sensibilities that allowed him to dismiss notions of government transparency and the participation of his colleagues, Agran unilaterally offered Ellzey a taxpayer-funded job worth more than $175,000 annually.

Of course, there was a catch.

The CEO job would remain vacant. Ellzey was invited take a government post that Agran–a Chicago native–conjured up on the spot: deputy CEO. Agan wanted to see how far he could trust Irvine’s newest public employee.

As I’d reported in detail for years before this secret Denny’s powwow, Agran’s public pronouncements about alleged strides in developing the Great Park had been a sham masking brazen corruption. Paranoid of the public learning more about his shenanigans, he nervously watched Ellzey and–apparently satisfied he could control him after about six months–elevated the outsider to the CEO post.

Yet, given this was Agran’s world–a theater of endless, conniving plots that would impress Shakespeare–Ellzey quietly learned he’d become CEO of nothing. He didn’t answer to the Great Park board or the City Council. He answered to Agran and two Great Park subcontractors: Arnold Forde (of Forde and Mollrich) and Yehudi Gaffen (of Gafcon Inc.), two of the Democrat’s pals who’ve taken millions of dollars in diverted park funds for no-bid, consulting contracts.

Continue reading at the O.C. Weekley…