Northern California Wildfire Debris Removal Suits Filed
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.
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.
Whistleblowers from the company have claimed that the company faked tests of the contaminated soil since the early aughts. Two employees of the company who worked at Hunters Point pled guilty to swapping contaminated—irradiated—dirt for clean dirt and allegedly falsifying test results in 2017.
Both men were sentenced to eight months in jail. On Jan. 14, the Department of Justice filed a complaint alleging that Tetra Tech submitted at least $58.5 million in false invoices while working at Hunters Point.
In response to a San Francisco Chronicle article about the Department of Justice claims, Singer, Tetra Tech's spokesperson, said that the misconduct at Hunters Point was isolated to a small number of rogue employees.
"Tetra Tech EC will vigorously defend its record and is confident it will prevail following an impartial and transparent legal and scientific review of the facts," Singer told the Chronicle.
On Jan. 11, a few days before the Department of Justice's complaint was filed, Tetra Tech was awarded a $250 million contract for work in Butte County.
In the North Bay, Tetra Tech was hired by the county to oversee AshBritt's work during the environmental cleanup process after the 2017 wildfires, according to the lawsuit.
The suit alleges that the companies marked toxic sites safe prematurely and removed far more soil than was necessary—sometimes digging six-foot deep holes on burned properties—in an effort to increase their profits, the suit charges.
The California Office of Emergency Services (OES) later discovered the mistake, according to a letter the agency's director, Mark Ghilarducci, sent to the Army Corps of Engineers in August 2018. After reviewing the work of Army contractors, the OES identified 282 over-excavated properties eligible for backfilling in 2018, according to numbers provided to the Bohemian by Shirlee Zane and confirmed by the county Office of Recovery and Resiliency.
"After extensive on-site inspections, the issues we have discovered thus far include, but are not limited to, obvious over-scraping of properties, severe damage to driveway and sidewalks, and damage to wells and septic tanks," the OES letter states. "Additionally, more than a dozen sites that were deemed cleared by the Army Corps of Engineers have recently been discovered to contain contaminated ash and fire debris."
In March of 2018, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors awarded Tetra Tech a contract. Under the agreement, Christopher Godley, Tetra Tech director of emergency services, was expected to help "assess and redefine the county's emergency management program" in his role as the county's interim emergency service manager. Other Tetra Tech employees would help as needed, according to the contract. The contract cost the county $9,560 per week.
In December 2018, the supervisors then hired Godley as the county's permanent emergency services manager. Godley previously worked in Marin County in a similar role, and in San Jose. Marin and Santa Clara counties have both utilized Tetra Tech services. Marin County's Department of Public Works signed a $46,767 contract with Tetra Tech in 2016, according to county records. According to a county-by-county 2015 review of Bay Area emergency-preparedness services by the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative, Marin's emergency services offices have prepositioned emergency-services contracts in place to utilize AshBritt in the event of a local disaster in Marin.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Godley is still employed at Tetra Tech in addition to his six-figure job in Sonoma County. But according to County spokeswoman Jennifer Larocque, Godley "is no longer under contract at Tetra Tech," and adds that when he was employed there, he didn't work in the company's debris-removal division. Godley is also a former U.S. Army Major with the Army Corps of Engineers, according to his LinkedIn profile. He did a previous turn as a deputy emergency manager in Sonoma from 1995-2001, when he left for Marin County and became its emergency services manager for about 10 years.
"His 25 years of residence in Sonoma County and prior emergency-management experience make him a valuable asset to our emergency management team," says Larocque.
Tetra Tech did not respond to requests for original comment for this story. Anderson did not respond to an email sent via Platinum Associates, his lobbying firm. As the Bohemian reported last month, Anderson's Sacramento lobbying firm, Platinum Advisors, has been representing AshBritt in Sacramento since October of 2018.
In addition to working on Hunters Point, Tetra Tech EC also tested for radiation on Treasure Island, another former naval base, according to a February report by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Three Tetra Tech EC managers named in the Department of Justice's fraud accusation about the company's work on Hunters Point also worked on Treasure Island, according to the Chronicle. Singer told the paper that the Department of Justice's January filing does not mention Treasure Island.
Anderson has connections to Treasure Island that date back 20 years. Anderson's development company, Kenwood Investments, has partnered with housing-development giant Lennar Corporation and Wilson Meany Sullivan to complete the $5 billion development.
In a statement to the Chronicle, the Treasure Island Development Group, the partnership Anderson is part of, said the group "relies on the public agencies responsible for the cleanup of Treasure Island—including state and federal environmental regulators and the U.S. Navy.
"Tetra Tech's work at Treasure Island has been thoroughly reviewed by multiple public agencies and our own experts," the development group stated. "No corners are being cut at Treasure Island."