Irvine Councilman Larry Agran is brushing off scathing testimony from current and former Orange County Great Park executives that allege millions of taxpayer dollars were wasted through poor budget planning and incompetence under a dysfunctional management system.
Among the allegations are that powerful consultants, one with close political ties to Agran, were authorized to run the project above the direction of city staff members.
The allegations were revealed July 21 through the release of testimony given over the past three months as part of the Great Park forensic audit approved by the Irvine City Council last year. The audit is examining more than $200 million spent on the Great Park so far.
The cost of the audit has risen to more than $1 million, and a final report is expected by September. Four of the audit depositions were released July 21 on a public records request.
Agran served as chairman of the Great Park Corp. for five of the seven years, 2005-12, covered by the audit. The corporation was folded into city operations in 2013.
"It's the kind of gossip and backbiting that's part of any major project," Agran said after stating he had not read the depositions two days after they were released.
Assistant city manager Mike Ellzey has functioned as the Great Park chief executive since shortly after he was hired by Agran in 2008. Ellzey told investigators he immediately encountered an unusual power structure in which consultant Arnold Forde, under a contract to his PR firm Forde & Mollrich, had more decision-making power than he did as CEO. Forde has served as a strategist in several of Agran's City Council and mayoral campaigns.
Ellzey submitted that with Forde as his right-hand man, and Yuhedi Gaffen of the design management firm Gafco, Agran created a "triumvirate of power" within the Great Park Design Studio. He testified the Design Studio routinely operated ahead of proper oversight by city staff members.
"That was just wrong," Ellzey stated in his deposition on June 18. "It was just wrong that a contractor/consultant was directing a public body."
Similar testimony was offered by former Great Park CEO Walter Kreutzen, former Chief Financial Officer Colleen Clark and former Manager Mary Ann Burgess. Ellzey is the only one among the four that remains attached to the Great Park project.
Ellzey said excessive contracts, with sloppy invoicing and design work that often could not produce deliverables, churned through millions of Great Park funds. Forde & Mollrich was paid $100,000 per month for public relations work — a figure Ellzey placed as much as 300% too high.
The release of the depositions hasn't moved Agran from his stance that the entire forensic audit is nothing more than a "political witch hunt," as he has stated in the past.
"Bottom line: we made tremendous progress on the Great Park with an award-winning master design and projects completed on time," Agran said. "The audit has yet to reveal a single dollar that is unaccounted for or misspent."