The Lennar Way Concord Style



By Richard Eber

In the spring of 2015 the City Council of Concord California had come down to a couple of firms to become master developer for some 5028 surplus acres at the decommissioned Naval Weapons Station.  Plans to make this locale where ammunition and explosives were once stored, into a vibrant new community where 50,000 people would someday reside, was a once in a life opportunity.

In today’s world of limited availability of commercial and residential property in the crowded San Francisco Bay Area market, this project was highly coveted by the two finalists, Urban Lennar and Catellus Development Corp. Both companies put a considerable amount of effort into earning the “golden ticket” from the Concord City Council.

Catellus’s team headed by Steve Buster put their time into community outreach and designing an innovative plan for the project.  Their work later ended up being recognized for its excellence, at least by the staff of the Concord Planning Department who recommended Catellus be made master developer for the first phase of the massive undertaking.

Lennar was having none of this.  With struggles going on in their other California properties in San Francisco, Newhall Ranch, and Mare Island, coming in second place in the Concord competition was not a viable option.   Using the time honored strategy of the Lennar Way; the developer targeted the assistance of Concord Mayor Tim Grayson who was in the process of running for a seat in the California State Assembly.

Grayson’s connection to Lennar was through his campaign manager, Mary Jo Rossi.  The iconic political consultant was conveniently connected to Lennar’s San Francisco inner circle.  Earlier in life Rossi was an intern to Willie Brown who mentored   her when he was speaker of the State Assembly.

This proved convenient as Brown, as Mayor of San Francisco, was close to Kofi Bonner, who served as his  Chief Economic Policy Advisor. He later becomes Regional VP of Lennar. As a close friend, Brown assisted his buddy at Lennar to obtain lucrative development contracts at Hunter’s Point and on Treasure Island,

This arrangement was by no means a one way street. San Francisco’s former Mayor Set up a consulting firm Golden Gate Global to sell E-5 visa’s to primarily wealthy Chinese business men.  These funds at a cool 1 million per family were then invested in Lennar Projects at considerable profit for Brown and his business partner attorney Steven Kay. It was a sweet deal because only a small amount of what was collected by Brown’s company for the EB-5’s had to be spent on financing the loans to Lennar.

This business arrangement Brown hoped to continue in Concord should Lennar win the contract of become Master Developer. So when Rossi approached her former boss to offer free political consultations with Mayor Grayson, Brown naturally jumped at the opportunity.

In accepting this offer, Grayson later said he did not believe these meetings were a conflict of interest to the process of selecting a developer. Others felt differently.  After the Contra Costa Times revealed that Grayson and Brown had two meetings, Catellus in particular was upset. 

In addition to campaign consulting services, it is believed that Mary Jo Rossi looked to her old boss and his friends at Lennar to raise money for the Assembly race.

 In June of 2016, Rossi, who also interned under legendary campaign manager Richie Ross, was desperate to collect enough funds before the end of month recording deadline to reach the magic $ 100,000 level that her boss made famous. It was thought, according to Ross that reaching this magic plateau would discourage other candidates from entering the race.  

To come up with the cash, campaign contributions were solicited from companies and individuals affiliated with Lennar.  Among them was Philip Bunting from the advertising firm   G.F.BUNTING+CO. who to this day does PR work for Lennar Also on the list of donors to Tim Grayson’s campaign was Willie Brown’s EB-5 partner Steven Kay and  Scarborough Insurance Agency

In all over $16,800 was solicited. Most of these funds came in right before the June 30th reporting deadline.  Even Mary Jo Rossi put in the maximum donation allowed into the kitty to reach the $100,000 mark.

Things were going along as planned until August when the meetings between Grayson and Brown became known along with the questionable campaign contributions revealed for the first time by this reporter.

Seeking to nip the growing scandal in the bud, Grayson, who said he found an attorney in the yellow pages, turned for legal assistance from high powered barrister Jim Sutton.  With a nickname “The Fixer”, Sutton who represented such high profile candidates as Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris, before the California Political Fair Practices Commission, quickly came to the rescue.

Under Sutton’s guidance, at the next city council meeting, Mayor Grayson read a statement denying there was anything other than political advice he received during his meetings with Willie Brown. Furthermore, Grayson said he was unaware that any of the political contributions received by those affiliated with Lennar came from those sources.

In order to protect his integrity, the Minister and Police Chaplin returned the campaign donations received from Lennar affiliated businesses while emphatically stating his vote was never for sale.

During this period Catellus President Ted Antenucci was crying foul.  In a letter to the City of  Concord dated September 24, 2015 the developer best known locally for their acclaimed work around the constructions of AT&T Park where the Giants baseball team plays, bitterly complained about the Lennar tactics to gain the Weapons Station contract. They were especially upset about the alleged lobbying of Mayor Grayson which was in violation of the agreement made by their company and Lennar with the City as the finalists for contract.

They became even angrier when Tim Grayson stated at a City Council meeting that he had secret knowledge gained from a mid level executive working for discredited Developer Albert Seeno that his company was conspiring with Catellus to take over the Concord Project.   At the time Seeno was being investigated by the FBI and would later plead guilty to mortgage fraud, pay an 11 million dollar fine, along with  jail time for a couple of their executives.

Even though Concord City Attorney Mark Koon later said these charges against Catellus being in collusion with Seeno to be groundless, the damage had already been done.  Later Catellus V.P. Steve Buster remarked his company had not done business with Seeno and had only once crossed paths with them while participating in a charity bocce ball tournament.

Meanwhile Mary Jo Rossi and Sutton were putting pressure on Koon to absolve Lennar of wrong doing in giving campaign donations to Grayson’s Assembly race prior to when the Mayor and the city council were to decide who was to be the Master Developer.   The confident pair wanted a vote to determine the winner of the competition as quickly as possible.

This process came to a grinding halt when Mark Koon tragically took his own life jumping to his death off the second story of the BART parking garage in Walnut Creek. Jim Sutton, who also doubles as a professor teaching ethics Hastings Hall Law School, sent an email to Koon’s  just prior to his death trying to convince him that Lennar had done nothing wrong monetarily supporting Grayson’s Assembly election campaign.

In the wake of Koon’s suicide, this vote did not happen.  It also never became clear the reasons for the city Attorney’s taking his own life. Because of the growing scandal and questions pertaining to the process for naming the master developer, the City Council decided to bring in noted attorney David Jenkins to investigate the mess and make recommendations of what could be done to bring back public confidence in the selection process.

In the interim, another problem cropped up.  It was learned Concord City Manager Valarie Barone spoke individually with three City Council members pertaining to blocking the release of a report made by the city staff that detailed the superiority of the proposal made by Catellus over Lennar. 

In doing so, they had unwittingly violated the Brown Act which strictly prohibits more than two City Council members to discuss any issue without the other individuals who serve on the body to participating in this process at a public meeting.

A couple months later, the Jenkins Report was issued which criticized the role Lennar played in trying to manipulate the selection process. Jenkins also concluded no campaign laws were broken by Lennar although their pledge not to lobby Council members was not followed.

There was only a limited amount of ground that Jenkins could investigate in the Lennar scandal as Mary Jo Rossi, Steve Kay, Kofi Bonner, and Willie Brown all refused to cooperate with him. Their strategy of in effect taking the 5th ended up working.

In the end Jenkins criticized the tactics of Lennar but left it up to the Concord City Council to determine who to choose as developer. At their next City Council meeting, despite cries to disqualify Lennar as a bidder, they voted to proceed with the selection process with both Catellus and Lennar participating.

Ironically, the following evening, David Jenkins put on an ethics clinic for the entire Concord City Council about them complying with the Brown Act.

At the same time, Tim Grayson ran for cover recusing him from the developer selection process. A month later he fired Mary Jo Rossi as his manager as he successfully mounted a campaign that would find him elected to the State Assembly where he currently serves.

Things did not end there.  At a contentious meeting debating the two proposals, Catellus did not like what they heard where they were depicted as being the bad guys in going public with their concerns about the selection process rather going directly to the city council with their grievances.

 One City Council member later remarked he wanted to wear Kevlar when being around Catellus for fear of being stabbed in the back.

Apparently Catellus President Ted Antenucci had heard enough.  Not only was he angry with the entire city council with the exception old Dan Helix, but also felt that the City Manager Valerie Barone and the new Project Manager Guy Bjerke were biased for Lennar.

Just prior to the final vote of the City Council, Antenucci withdrew his company from consideration in the bidding process opting to have a relatively small deposit of $ 250,000 returned from Concord.  Bjerke accommodated his request with a wire transfer the following morning.

The highly regarded Antenucci, who recently is well known for companies work at Alameda Landing, disclosed that he took the drastic action to abandon the Naval Weapons Station Project because of the corruption he had witnessed on several levels which would make it impossible to work with this group.

With no competition left, Lennar soon was given the Master Developer contract (Through their subsidiary Five Point Holdings) almost by default for the first phase by the Concord City Council.  Ironically, Lennar was forced by them to accept almost all the conditions of Catullus’s superior proposal to receive the final nod.

In late 2017, Dan Helix, now retired from politics, quit being Chairman of the projects Citizens Advisory Commission CAC when with little discussion Guy Bjerke had them pass a resolution accepting Lennar’s land use plan before environmental and traffic reviews were in place.  This is the first step allowing them to sell land to provide much needed cash flow on this multi-billion dollar project.

The Lennar Way had triumphed once again

* This article was first published in California Political News and Views: Eber: The Lennar Way Concord Style

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Richard Eber studied journalism at the University of Oregon. He writes about politics, culture, education restaurants, and was former city and sports editor of UCSB Daily. Richard is president of Amerasa Rapid Transit, a specialized freight forwarder.

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