As complaints mount about fire clean-up, disaster contractor gives big money to California Dems

A Florida-based company accused of botching the clean-up after last year’s devastating fires in Santa Rosa has jumped into California politics, writing big checks to Gavin Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign and the California Democratic Party.

AshBritt, which contracted with the federal government to clean up the disaster, and another company owned by AshBritt chairman Randal Perkins together donated $250,000 to the state Democratic Party on Oct. 4, campaign filings show. Two weeks earlier, AshBritt CEO Brittany Perkins donated $29,200 to Newsom’s campaign, the maximum allowed.

The donations come as Santa Rosa homeowners complain their fire-ravaged properties were further damaged by federal contractors, and as California emergency officials blast the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for lax oversight, leading to “negligent and potentially fraudulent acts” by the contracted companies.

An AshBritt spokesman said the company followed all laws and regulations during the clean-up and that criticism from state leaders has nothing to do with its foray into California politics.

“We contribute throughout the country in areas where we work,” said Gerardo Castillo.

“Our donations are made as good corporate citizens by our employees and our owners, and there is no connection with any political issues.”

But recent events indicate some reasons to anticipate political problems.

In August, Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, wrote a letter to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers saying that contractors hired to remove debris from burned areas in Santa Rosa excavated so much extra material that they damaged driveways, septic systems, wells and other features on hundreds of properties.

Insufficient oversight allowed contractors to “take far more soil than was necessary,” Ghilarducci wrote.

“Given these subcontractors were paid per ton of soil removed, it is probable this over-excavation was an intentional effort to capitalize on this tragedy by defrauding the government.”

The letter does not name specific companies, but Castillo said AshBritt played a lead role in removing debris after the fire and a KQED investigation says it was one of three prime contractors awarded the $1.3 billion clean-up job by the Army Corps of Engineers. The KQED investigation also says the state licensing board fined AshBritt and five subcontractors for contracting without a license. One subcontractor was found to have violated several safety laws, leading to the death of a worker. Castillo said the investigation of the death did not lead to any negative findings about AshBritt, and that the contract to be paid by the ton for hauling debris was structured to promote efficiency.

Formed in 1992, AshBritt is now a major player in the business of disaster recovery. It has worked on more than 200 disaster sites, including the clean-up from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. The New Jersey Star Ledger described AshBritt as a “politically connected” firm that has made billions from government contracts. Its work following Hurricane Irma in Florida last year prompted that state’s attorney general to open an investigation into potential price-gouging, which a spokesman said remains ongoing.

The Newsom campaign and the Democratic Party did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

California Democrats aren’t the only ones benefiting from AshBritt’s political spending this year. The company also donated $500,000 to a pro-Trump super-PAC in April. That led to a complaint by the Campaign Legal Center, alleging that federal contractors are prohibited from making federal campaign contributions and that the donation was made the day after AshBritt received a payment of almost the same amount from a Department of Defense contract.

AshBritt founder and chairman Randy Perkins told Roll Call it was just a paperwork error—the donation was from him personally, not his company, which is allowed under federal law.

AshBritt’s political activity in California has largely been dormant for the last decade. Between 2005 and 2008 the company and its founder gave more than $300,000 to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of his ballot measures and state and local GOP groups.

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