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AshBritt hires Darius Anderson's lobbying firm as recovery faces continued criticism

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"We have made that line absolutely clear in the sand—and not a single investor [in the Press Democrat] or Darius has stepped over that line once," Falk told the Chronicle.

But there's been notable absence of critical coverage of AshBritt in Anderson's papers in the months since the company hired Platinum Advisors in October. The paper has covered several local press-friendly events sponsored by AshBritt. In early November, for example, AshBritt sponsored a North Bay Business Journal conference about the cleanup process.

The conference was covered in the Journal and the Press Democrat, but neither paper mentioned the complaints about AshBritt's work in the county (which the Press Democrat had previously covered).

The paper did not mention allegations of possible fraud by federal contractors mentioned in Ghilarducci's letter to the Army Corps. It did not mention AshBritt's role in over-excavating local lots, or the December 2017 death of a truck driver hired by an AshBritt subcontractor (an event that the Press Democrat reported on at the time).

The company also contributed $450,000 to construct walls in Coffey Park in partnership with the Rebuild North Bay Foundation, according to the Press Democrat. Rebuild's website says the project cost $650,000.

The Press Democrat's coverage of a Nov. 8 ribbon-cutting event featured a photograph of Supervisor James Gore helping to knock the old Coffey Park wall, but failed to mention that Anderson's firm had by then started to lobby for the company, or that Gore's wife, Elizabeth, is on the board of Rebuild North Bay.

In response to a Bohemian article about the wall published last September, AshBritt's then–general counsel Jared Moskowitz said "the suggestion that AshBritt made the donation because of some connection to Darius Anderson is unequivocally false." Two weeks later, AshBritt hired Anderson's lobbying firm to represent its interests in Sacramento.

Moskowitz, who served in the Florida House of Representatives as a Democrat when he talked to the Bohemian, was selected to lead the Florida Division of Emergency Management in December 2018.

For the past several months, the Press Democrat has also published a series of special sections on the recovery process titled "Rebuild North Bay." The sections do not directly mention a partnership with the nonprofit of the same name, but those stories do occasionally mention the nonprofit and include the obligatory mention of Anderson's ownership stake in the Press Democrat.

Given Anderson's multiple intersecting interests in California business and politics, Platinum Advisors appeared well-positioned to provide AshBritt with the connections it needed to get more work in California. But it was not to be.

PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS

Shortly after founding Rebuild North Bay, Anderson announced the organization's first hire. Witt was recruited to lead the nonprofit for several months in the hope of connecting local governments with federal disaster response money. At the time, the Bohemian was the only paper in town to highlight Witt's numerous business interests in the so-called "disaster capitalism" economy.

Witt left Rebuild in early 2018. At the Global Climate Action Summit in September, Supervisor James Gore and Witt gave separate speeches at the same event about the need for "climate resilience" in the coming years.

In his speech, Witt, who has worked as a lobbyist and consultant since leaving FEMA in 2001, announced a partnership with the National Association of Counties called Project Impact 2.

"In early 2019, Project Impact 2 will launch—this time backed by the private sector. This project is a nationwide campaign with the goal of engaging community leaders and the public to tackle future impacts of increasingly frequent and severe weather events and climate change," Witt wrote in a Nov. 30 op-ed online at msn.com.

Gore's wife, Elizabeth Gore, serves as president of Rebuild North Bay Foundation's board of directors.

Gore says he has served as the board chair of the National Association of Counties Resilience Committee since January 2017.

"I met Witt immediately after our fires, but since we as a county had no formal relationship with his firm, I did not work with him," says Gore, adding that he had a few phone calls with Witt before the Global Climate Action Summit about a possible partnership between the Resiliency Committee and Witt.

"We had a few calls, were interested in the concept, announced a potential partnership at the summit, but ultimately no true partnership was formed," Gore says.

A spokesperson at the National Organization of Counties says that the organization is still "evaluating how best to advance the concept [of Project Impact 2]."

On Jan. 8, Gore voted along with three other supervisors—Shirlee Zane was not at the meeting—to make Rebuild a fiscal agent for block captain programs in Zane's district.

"The District 3 block captain group needed a legal entity to act as a fiscal agent to be able to receive the [county] grant funds for the community engagement activities they are going to pursue," says county spokesperson Briana Khan of the contract.

"Most fiscal agents charge an administrative fee for fund management, but Rebuild North Bay offered to waive fees," adds Khan.

The supervisor's vote does not meet state standards for a conflict of interest since Elizabeth Gore's position on the Rebuild's board is unpaid, according to Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein.

Anderson is now listed as Rebuild's Immediate Past Board President on the nonprofit's website. Late last year, the Bohemian reported on a multimillion-dollar fraud settlement with the Graton Casino that looped in another of his entities, Kenwood Investments.

Along with his work for Rebuild, Witt also has connections with AshBritt. He has worked on many projects with the company. An AshBritt spokesperson told the Bohemian in September that the company had never worked for or hired Witt, but that AshBritt has been monitored by Witt's company, Witt O'Brien's, "dozens of times" in other disaster-recovery efforts.

However, Witt Associates—the consulting company Witt founded after leaving FEMA—and AshBritt are named as partners on the disaster-removal contract with Alameda County signed in 2011.

Under that contract, Witt Associates would use its proprietary software, WittTrak, to track AshBritt's expenditures and draw up the documents required to file for FEMA reimbursements, among other roles.

"Witt Associates, Inc. consults on public safety and crisis management, with experience in emergency management, from preparedness and mitigation through response and recovery," an Alameda County staff report from the time states.

The disaster-response world is a small one, and Witt's consulting companies are well placed in it, largely due to Witt's experience at FEMA and his political connections.

For instance, some familiar names advised the Little Hoover Commission, a body described online as "California's Independent Oversight Agency," in the creation of an April 2006 report on the state's disaster-response plans.

Ghilarducci, who went on to become the director of Cal OES under Gov. Jerry Brown and now Gavin Newsom, worked as the director of Western States Regional Office of James Lee Witt Associates, according to a list of witnesses interviewed for the report. According to Witt's 2002 biography, Stronger in the Broken Places, Ghilarducci also worked for Witt at FEMA following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

In his capacity as head of Rebuild North Bay, Witt acted as a liaison between Cal OES and other disaster response agencies, according to an interview he gave to the Press Democrat in 2017 that failed to provide any detail on his numerous outside business interests.

Representatives for Witt and Cal OES did not respond to requests for comment on the relationship between the two men.

Also listed in the report is Leon Panetta, the chief of staff to Clinton who later became Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration. In a 2017 interview with the San Francisco Business Times, Anderson said that he had hired Witt to lead Rebuild North Bay on the recommendation of Panetta.

Last June, the Santa Rosa City Council approved an $88,000 contract for Witt O'Brien's—a company that resulted from a merger between Witt Associates and another company—to complete an after-action report for the fire department. James Lee Witt is no longer associated with Witt O'Brien's, according to the website of Witt Global Partners.

PREEXISTING CONTRACTS

AshBritt has a longer history in the Bay Area than first meets the eye.

In September 2014, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a contract with AshBritt, as an extension of a contract the company signed with Alameda County in 2011.

The contract with AshBritt is known as a "turnkey contractor" for its ability to give full-service response and immediate enhanced access to federal disaster response dollars. It's meant to provide peace of mind to local governments who lack the resources to plan and implement a disaster response plan on their own.

Politically connected contractors are also necessary to navigate the state and federal bureaucracies and extract as much recovery funding as possible.

"The process of recovering funds from FEMA is highly complex with frequent rule changes, and one in which errors can cost local governments millions," Alameda County staff advised the county's board of supervisors in 2011 before signing the contract with AshBritt.

Alameda and Sonoma counties have both extended their contracts with AshBritt until July 31, 2021—but the county's contract was not in effect during the county's recovery from the fires, according to Michael Gossman, a deputy county administrator in charge of the Office of Recovery and Resiliency..

"There was never an obligation to use the contract, and so termination never came up," explains Gossman. "As part of the federal assistance provided, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers procured work from the contractors the federal government selected, including AshBritt."

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