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

LarryAgranOCWpic.jpg
Meranda Carter/OC Weekly
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.

In a sworn, June 18 deposition made public this afternoon as a result of an ongoing audit of Great Park finances and the reasons why Agran and his political allies spent $200 million with very little to show, Ellzey talks about his first realization that something was terribly wrong in Irvine.

Scanning budget items when he took the job in 2008, he saw that Forde, Agran's chief political consultant based in Newport Beach, was receiving $100,000 per month to do public relations for a park that didn't exist. Perhaps worse, the contract required nothing of Forde and Mollich. It was merely a retainer won without a single bid. The private consultants enjoyed a remarkable deal: They could stay in bed all day and still collect the public funds.

"I remember as though it was yesterday," he told Anthony R. Taylor, the private attorney representing the city in its probe of the Great Park. Shocked, Ellzey approached two veteran Great Park managers and asked, "'What is this $100,000 a month for Forde and Mollrich?' And they told me it was for public relations. And I said, 'We've got to reduce that. I mean, that's way too much. We've got to reduce that.'"

The response was memorable.

"And they literally laughed," said Ellzey. "I asked them, 'Why are you laughing?' [They replied], 'Good luck on that.'"

Frustration mounted.

"I didn't know at the time, but here I was, new guy coming in, starting to make changes because it was now my shop, and one of the things I wanted to change was how could we possibly be using a $100,000 a month for public relations?" Ellzey testified. "We have to lower that. Doesn't anybody see this?"

When other experienced consultants offered to take the Forde and Mollrich monthly contract for $15,000, Ellzey tried to get Agran, Councilwoman Beth Krom--Agran's whiny, robotic sidekick on the council and park board--and Forde to downsize the deal he thought was worth no more than $25,000 per month. But even a suggestion to lower the contract to $50,000 per month met seething anger.

"And so I knew exactly how, how strong and powerful Forde and Mollrich were," Ellzey said. "How connected they were to Larry Agran and how powerful Larry Agran was as an individual, and don't even think of messing with it because you will get smothered if you even try. And so I didn't for a variety of reasons. I realized I was not powerful enough to come in, brand-new kid on the block, and mess with that contract. And so I left it alone."

It also weighed on Ellzey that, though a brilliant strategist, Forde acted like a "Mafioso" and "threatened to come after [his job]," according to the deposition transcript.

During public hearings, Ellzey says, he "was [repeatedly] put in a position of publicly justifying a $100,000 a month" deal, which he called "low points for me as a public executive."

He recalled during Taylor's inquiry, "If pressed, I could never justify that [Forde and Mollrich] brought that much value. I just couldn't do it. . . . So, somebody was making a lot of money."

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40 comments
misslee
misslee

Shame on them!! So disappointing :/

JWilliams
JWilliams

I love it!  "robotic sidekick" Krom.  Aint that the truth!  Throw them both in jail!!

Carol
Carol

This article reads like an episode from "American Greed".  How do we get the rest of the Irvine residents to see this article especially when the next voting season opens only to find the same characters on the ballot?  More need to read this and educate themselves on what has gone on with these folks.  My final question is:  Who was watching all this happen without questioning it?  They are as guilty as Agran and his now wealthy band of merry thieves!  Line up team as you are the watchers to our hard earned tax dollars that we believe are going to good use! 

http://blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing/2014/07/larry_agran_great_park_irvine.php?page=1

Jeff Byrne
Jeff Byrne

This why we're bankrupt people. Its a free for all with no oversight or accountability. If you ever feel the urge to raise taxes please just let me know. Ill squander your money for you...

JohnnyT
JohnnyT

A good read: I am just not sure if their can be provable criminal evidence here.  Even paying a PR agency $100K/month can be "justified" by their fancy mailers and wasteful media buys.

ltpar
ltpar topcommenter

Excellent article Scott and I am confident that it is only the tip of the iceberg.  I hope the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles is reading it and will finally get off his ass and order up an FBI Criminal Investigation.    

mhip
mhip

Pave it, and bring back El Toro...

20ftjesus
20ftjesus topcommenter

*Yawn*

Wake me up when the DA brings charges.


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Unit F
Unit F

what a clown. and as we watch the rampant overbuilding of both sfr and multifamily units all around the 'great' park, we marvel at the overcrowding now occuring before our eyes. some 5000 new housing units built, and still no park...let alone a great park. Oh, and one would think, there would be some tribute, some monumentation somewhere of the First Nations People SOMEWHERE in the goddamned planning....hello? anyone? the Acajachemen Tribe? anyone?

rexmiller2012
rexmiller2012

What a great read, but I don't think Ellzey or Burgess have described anything criminal (incompetent, yes). Is there a nexus between the $100K F&M payments and Larry's campaign? That would be a very interesting read.

Dfw Marine Detailing
Dfw Marine Detailing

The lower and middle class voted on income tax. The rich are smart enough to avoid most taxes. The poor and middles classes are the ones stuck paying the taxes. Funny how this worked out.

Perry Larmer
Perry Larmer

POS. I hope they throw his ass in jail and make him dissolve his entire net worth.

Steve Bergier
Steve Bergier

200 million dollars and all we got is a crummy orange balloon.

larrylovesbeth
larrylovesbeth

And I would not buy a house over there, it is still a super fund site.  The sh it that I have heard they dumped over there thru the years is just asking for a problem

DayT
DayT

Outrage city / local spending happens everywhere in the world. Residents will never find out until "other" party member took office. 

Irvine have a bigger problem, and that is, what were we doing to the park 20 years after we voted "no" to international airport in OC, and WHERE IS THE GREAT PARK???

larrylovesbeth
larrylovesbeth

A lot of people have made a ton of money off this project, especially Larry & Beth I'm sure.  Nobody over there had any clue on how to develop a project like this and I remember an orignial great park board member telling these clowns not to have the entire project designed, he later quit, can't blame him, but he was the only person qualified to be involved with something like this. Ken Smith had no business being involved with this project, Larry is a part time mid sized city council member who has a big problem knocking on his door.  May see him doing some time for this

Bobby Godinez
Bobby Godinez

What a disgrace !!! I have always wondered when the Great Park was going to appear ??

Hoof Hearted
Hoof Hearted

Paying taxes should have everyone pissed, period. PS Muh roads!

Rachel Peress
Rachel Peress

This is not news...the great park greatly lined many politicians pockets...we've known that for years...

Sandra Sutphen
Sandra Sutphen

This is so sad. I remember when Agran was one of the (few) good guys! Wow!

dancliff
dancliff

I would love to see the day Larry Agran and Beth Krom go to prison for this scandal and have to pay back all the money they stole from the city....

misslee
misslee

I wonder the same, how can we get the citizens of Irvine to be aware of what's going on? So awful :/

buzzookaman
buzzookaman

We already have a nice airport, we don't need two.

misslee
misslee

I know right! Sheesh

dancliff
dancliff

@DayT I'd rather have nothing there then have an international airport there. We've got plenty of airports around - LAX, John Wayne, San Diego, Long Beach even Ontario - last thing we need is another airport and all the noise and traffic that would bring...

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