Great Park Insider: Larry Agran's Corruption, Incompetence Worse Than Previously Known
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.
Meranda Carter/OC Weekly
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.'"
"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."