LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Doris Thornton considered replacing the lawn at her South Los Angeles home to save money on water.
She says she was contacted last summer by Turf Terminators, a company that converted lawns into drought-tolerant landscape.
It’s the same company that Mayor Eric Garcetti touted in his State of the City address in April and the same company that would go on to cash in on millions of dollars in ratepayer rebates.
But in emails CBS2 News Investigative Reporter David Goldstein obtained from Garcetti’s office, the former CEO of Turf Terminators facilitated thousands of dollars in donations to the mayor’s nonprofit organization just before the speech. It was enough to make local political watchdog Jack Humphreville question whether something’s up.
“The only thing that’s green about them is the dough,” Humphreville said.
Ryan Nivakoff is the former Turf Terminators CEO, or “Mr. Turf Terminator,” as the mayor called him in his April speech.
Goldstein found emails from Nivakoff to the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, a nonprofit with no limits on donations that according to its website “is dedicated to improving life for all Angelenos.”
Nivakoff on Feb. 12, 2015, wrote: “I spoke with my friend Pete Radtke. Pete offered to contribute $10,000 to the mayor’s fund and will be mailing me the check.”
Records from the city Ethics Commission show the contribution by Radtke and his wife, who live in New Jersey, was made April 8, a week before the mayor’s speech.
In another email, Nivakoff wrote: “I’m happy to report that another one of my friends has committed to contributing … Gier Solberg. Another $10,000.”
Records show a Gier Soldberg of Houston made a $10,000 contribution on the same day, April 8.
The mayor’s fund responded: “Ryan! You are amazing! Thank you so much for your continued support.”
Turf Terminators wasn’t done.
Another $10,000 was contributed on the same day by a member of Turf Terminators.
In all, the mayor’s nonprofit took in $30,000 April 8 because of Turf Terminators.
And as previously reported, Goldstein found contributions to Garcetti’s re-election campaign from officers of Turf Terminators, their associates, even out-of-state relatives, all in the weeks leading up to the mayor’s speech.
It totaled more than $45,000. All of it legal.
The mayor has said the money had nothing to do with his speech.
“Just say it’s a coincidence,” Garcetti said.
“This is a family channel, so I won’t tell you what i really think, but … I don’t buy that,” Humphreville said. “I think it’s a crock.”
Turf Terminators has received more than $8 million in ratepayer rebates from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to convert lawns. That’s 27 percent of all the rebate money that’s been distributed.
In a statement, a representative for Turf Terminators said: “Implying that donations from the company or individuals associated with the company were for political purposes is false, inaccurate and wrong. Any donations were intended to further the cause of drought awareness.”
And saving water is what Thornton wanted to do.
“Yes, it’s free,” she said.
But it wasn’t free in Thornton’s case. Her contract shows the proposed DWP rebate only covered $2,625 for her lawn. The out-of-pocket cost the company would charge her was just over $3,000. Where was the difference supposed to come from? She found out when she got an approval in the mail.
“Congratulations, your application has been approved for $3,000,” it said.
She says this loan was approved without her knowledge. At an interest rate of nearly 27 percent.
“This is like nothing I would ever do,” Thornton said.
A loan with an interest rate that high is “absolutely ludicrous,” she said.
“I would never, ever agree to 27 percent interest rates unless my roof flew off the house or something . Then I know to keep the rain out but not to turn my dirt into rocks because I can do that myself,” Thornton said.
She complained to DWP on Aug. 24. It was outlined in an email written by a DWP representative, titled “Possible new scam.”
One email Goldstein found just one day later made it all the way up to Garcetti’s office, with his director of infrastructure saying “Arghh. Will see what I can find out on my end.”
“It stinks. It stinks to high hell,” said Humphreville said.
Goldstein wanted to ask Garcetti about the emails, but despite a series of requests, his office never agreed to an interview, instead releasing a statement saying in part: “We appreciate the support we receive, but it has no impact on the policy decisions we make.”
The statement came only after he left a meeting Thursday through a back door with Goldstein waiting to talk with him.
Thornton never had her lawn removed and never applied for the rebate.
Turf Terminators says it advised her not to take the loan for 27 percent interest.