Pro-Ravitch campaign calls for investigation into Gallaher fraud allegations
The campaign opposing the recall of Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch Saturday called for the county to investigate allegations of housing fraud contained in a whistleblower lawsuit brought by a former employee of an apartment complex built by developer Bill Gallaher.
In a statement emailed to Ravitch’s supporters Saturday morning, the campaign called on supervisors “to conduct a full inquiry into Vineyard Creek (Apartments) and the alleged violations,” contained in the lawsuit brought by whistleblower Mariah Clark.
The statement outlined key elements of Clark’s complaint and linked to a copy of it online.
A Press Democrat investigation into Clark’s complaint, published first at pressdemocrat.com Saturday afternoon, found she and five companies named as defendants in the lawsuit have agreed to a $500,000 settlement. It applies to Clark’s claims of retaliation and labor code violations, but would also dismiss any claims of housing and insurance fraud.
Clark alleged Vineyard Creek violated insurance law and affordable housing agreements that were key to the approval and financing of the apartment complex, which opened near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in 2006.
Gallaher is the sole donor to the campaign to unseat Ravitch, who sued one of his companies, Oakmont Senior Living, for abandoning elderly residents at two Santa Rosa senior homes during the 2017 Tubbs fire.
Gallaher has spent $1.6 million to bankroll the Sept. 14 recall, according to the latest public findings.
Gallaher and son-in-law Scott Flater sued The Press Democrat in 2016 over four stories that detailed outside spending in that year’s Santa Rosa City Council elections. The defamation suit was dismissed in a unanimous decision by the First Appellate District court in San Francisco.
Three government agencies -- the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, the California Attorney General’s Office and the California Department of Insurance -- investigated the whistleblower claims and declined to join her lawsuit, but reserved the right to investigate later.
On Saturday, Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins said that after a yearlong investigation by county officials, the board was told there was not enough evidence to support Clark’s claims.
County officials remained open to reconsidering, she said.
“If the campaign or anyone else has additional evidence that we’re not aware of, that’s certainly something that the board can consider,” Hopkins said in response to the pro-Ravitch campaign’s calls for further action.
A leader of the anti-recall campaign called for a more thorough accounting of what was behind the allegations.
“The public deserves to know, ‘Was there any wrongdoing?’” at Vineyard Creek, said Terry Price, the chair of Voters Opposed to Recalling Jill Ravitch.
“Without having to go to trial, there’s been no process of discovery,” Price said. “We don’t know what the actual facts and circumstances are of this case.”
Brandon Cho, the Recall Ravitch campaign treasurer, did not respond to a voicemail and an emailed request for comment on Saturday.
The lawsuit names five companies — Vineyard Creek LP, Gallaher Homes LLC, Oakmont Senior Living, OSL of Vineyard Creek LLC and Concepts for Seniors LLC — as defendants. The companies played a role in Vineyard Creek operations and are run by the Gallaher family, according to the complaint.
Attorneys for the companies did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the lawsuit and settlement last week. Gallaher also did not respond to requests for comment.
For weeks, reporters for The Press Democrat had been researching the unfolding of the lawsuit before the pro-Ravitch campaign published its Saturday statement.
Through records requests and interviews with state and county officials, that investigation raised questions about how intensely the government had monitored Vineyard Creek’s compliance with its affordable housing agreements.
In a closed-session briefing with county lawyers Aug. 17, supervisors were told there had previously been some “compliance issues” at Vineyard Creek, according to supervisors.
County lawyers informed the board the complex had corrected all of those issues when they were brought to Vineyard Creek’s attention, Hopkins said.
“We take allegations of fraud very seriously and if there were clear evidence of fraud than it was absolutely something we would be pursuing,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writers Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or firstname.lastname@example.org and Ethan Varian at 707-521-5412 or email@example.com.
Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat
I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.