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Disaster-services firms under fire as 'private-public' wildfire-recovery plan takes shape

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ENFLAMED North Bay fire victims are feeling burned all over again. - TOM GOGOLA
  • Tom Gogola
  • ENFLAMED North Bay fire victims are feeling burned all over again.

Two contracting companies that cleared fire debris in the North Bay last year have been defrauding the federal government on contracts across the country since at least 2015, a lawsuit filed last week alleges.

AshBritt Environmental, one of the two companies named in the suit, recently hired local media magnate Darius Anderson to lobby for its interests in Sacramento. Sonoma County recently hired a former employee of the other company, Tetra Tech, to oversee the county's emergency-management response.

Disaster-recovery players such as Anderson have highlighted, in public statements, the necessity of public-private partnerships to fully recover from the 2017 wildfires. The emphasis on public-private schemes is demonstrable when it comes to Tetra Tech and AshBritt. Both firms have contracts and ongoing business in Sonoma and Marin counties. The new Sonoma emergency-services director, Christopher Godley, held similar posts in Marin County and in San Jose—and, according to his LinkedIn account, still works for Tetra Tech, at a post he's held since 2014.

Setting that apparent revolving-door riddle aside for the moment, the class-action lawsuit, filed by San Francisco's Arns Law Firm on behalf of North Bay residents impacted by the companies' work after the fires, claims the firms intentionally overbilled the federal government on contracts. During the North Bay cleanup, the companies allegedly removed far more soil than necessary and told government agencies that burnt parcels were fully cleared of ash and other toxic materials when they were not.

"The fundamental goal of the enterprise was to maximize the profits of AshBritt and Tetra Tech by over-excavating on subject properties and unnecessarily removing non-debris material without testing for contamination," the lawsuit states.

The class action lawsuit states that victims of the alleged scheme are "presumed to be in the thousands."

Sam Singer, a spokesperson for Tetra Tech, told the San Francisco Examiner last week that the lawsuit "has no merit whatsoever."

A recent press release from AshBritt states that the company only performed work for one of the three North Bay residents named in the lawsuit. ECC Constructors, another debris-removal company working in the area, performed the work on the properties of the other two named North Bay residents, according to the statement.

"This suit is parallel to an earlier, currently active lawsuit in federal court brought by the same law firm and making the same allegations against ECC Constructors and Tetra Tech for the cleanup work in Napa County. AshBritt has already been dismissed from that suit," the press release states.

In another lawsuit filed in Sonoma County Superior Court last year, the Arns Law Firm alleges that AshBritt and one of its subcontractors committed a number of labor and wage violations during its time working in the North Bay.

Previous Criticisms

AshBritt and the other federal contractors were criticized by local officials and residents for their role in the cleanup last year.

The federal government's 2017 North Bay cleanup cost an average of $280,000 per house compared with $77,000 during the state-managed 2015 Valley fire cleanup, according to an analysis by KQED. AshBritt invoiced the Army Corps for $320 million for its work in California from October 2017 through June of 2018, according to federal records.

"There's no doubt that this company was following the money," Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said of the company in an interview with the Bohemian, noting that AshBritt was among other contractors who had re-traumatized fire victims with their on-the-ground activities.

As criticism of AshBritt hit a critical mass, and as the Bohemian reported last month, AshBritt invested in California politics late last year in an apparent effort to win more work following the 2018 fire season (see "Cleanup Crew," Feb. 12). It also hired a firm controlled by Anderson, Platinum Advisors, to lobby for its interests in Sacramento. Anderson is the managing partner of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Press Democrat and numerous North Bay newspapers. He's also the founder of the Rebuild North Bay Foundation, which has placed itself squarely between the public and the private when it comes to new North Bay disaster-services partnerships.

As it turns out, AshBritt was not among the companies selected to work on the Camp fire in Butte County or the Woolsey dire in Southern California. The company responded to the denial of its proposal by filing complaints that contested both contract awards. AshBritt's Camp fire complaint was dismissed on March 1, and the Woolsey fire complaint is still under consideration, according to a spokesperson for CalRecycle, the agency managing the debris-removal process.

Tetra Tech, a Pasadena-based consulting and engineering-services company with hundreds of offices around the United States, is a less familiar presence in the North Bay, but its environmental testing subsidiary, Tetra Tech EC, has become known in San Francisco because of allegations of fraud during the company's work at Hunters Point Shipyard, a former Navy base slated for housing development.

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