LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Alan Weinberg of West Hills wanted to do his part to help ease the drought.
So, he converted his lawn into a drought-tolerant landscape by hiring Turf Terminators in exchange for them claiming his rebate from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
It is the same company that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti touted in his State of the City address last April. "It's an L.A. company that leverages rebates to replace water-guzzling lawns with beautiful water-wise plants," the mayor announced.
That company that would go on to take in millions of dollars in ratepayer rebates. How did Turf Terminators get the mayor's attention? CBS2/KCAL9's Investigative Reporter David Goldstein traced they money to Garcetti from people connected to the company and found a trail that makes political watchdog Jack Humphreville suspicious.
During Garcetti's address, he pointed out Ryan Nivakoff, 29, in the audience and called him "Mr. Turf Terminator." Nivakoff is the former CEO of the company that was profiled on numerous stories in the news.
According to records Goldstein obtained from the L.A. Ethics Commission, Nivakoff made a $1,400 donation, the maximum allowed by law, to the "Garcetti for Mayor 2017" campaign on March 12. That's a month before the speech.
On the same day, Goldestein found another donation of $1,400 from New Jersey contributed by a man named Victor Gallo. His occupation is listed as a trader with KG Capital. But California business records show a Victor Gallo of New Jersey was a member of Turf Terminators.
Fast-forward to April 8, it appears Gallo and his wife, Fabiana, also donated $10,000 to the Mayor's Fund for Los Angeles, a nonprofit with no limits on donations.
Then there was a donation of $1,400 from a New Yorker named Geoffrey Bigos. He told Goldstein he donated because Garcetti is a nice guy. He admitted he knows the Turf Terminator guys, and apparently very well. Photos Goldstein found show Bigos and the head of Turf Terminators in Europe and at a wedding.
In all, over the four weeks leading up to the mayor's speech, Goldstein found a total of 13 contributions to Garcetti's campaign and nonprofit totaling $25,650, all within the legal limits from officers of Turf Terminators, their associates and relatives, even Nivakoff's mother, Rosemary Arway, who lives in Florida. She claimed the donation had no connection to Turf Terminators.
"No, I don't buy it. They're not independent. They're all linked together. Why would some old lady in Florida go out and give Eric Garcetti $1,400 bucks out of the goodness of her heart?" Humphreville asked.
Nivakoff refused an interview on camera but told Goldstein those who contributed did so voluntarily with their own money. When Goldstein asked the mayor why the donations came in right before State of the City, Garcetti said he had no idea of the timing.
Goldstein also found that the day of the speech, a City Council committee accepted a donation of $50,000 worth of landscaping from Turf Terminators. It was used to beautify the LAPD Topanga Police Station with drought-resistant plants.
Experts say the contributions are legal. Goldstein asked the mayor about the timing and whether Turf Terminators bought his way into his speech, Garcetti said: "No way, I didn't even know about those preceding the speech. But this was highlighting a great company, a company that's been able to, with Angelenos, save a record amount of water." Garcetti said the fact that he mentioned Turf Terminator in his speech was a coincidence.
"No, I do not buy that. These guys know exactly where they're getting the money. And if they don't, their campaign people do," Humphreville said.
Both before and after the speech, Turf Terminators dominated the market because they offered to convert lawns for free. Homeowners had to sign over their rebates from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California or the LADWP. And they created jobs that the mayor was proud to announce.
"The company started with just three people last July. Now, it employs more than 450," the mayor announced in his April speech.
Records show Turf Terminators received $23.6 million in rebates to convert 9,958 lawns. According to the Metropolitan Water District, there an addtional $21.7 million reserved for projects that have not been completed
Records show Turf Terminators and related companies received more than $23 million in rebates from both agencies to convert nearly 10,000 water guzzling lawns. And the Metropolitan Water District says there is another $21 million reserved for Turf Terminators for projects that haven't been completed.
But now the rebates have dried up. Turf Terminators is not accepting new customers, according to its website. State licensing records show Nivakoff is no longer associated with the company. And it's been reported the company laid off most of the 450 workers the mayor touted.
Goldstein asked the mayor: "You look at the company from 450 and now almost no employees? The mayor replied: "Nobody ever said that these were permanent jobs."
The company left behind dying plants on Weinberg's lawn and a slew of complaints online from other customers.
Paul Herzog of the Surfrider Foundation said Turf Terminators did the bare minimum to qualify for rebates but should have done a lot more.
"It's a good lesson for all of us that if we're going to give out public money, this is the kind of standards that we need," Herdoz said.
They are now working on standards for when new rebate money may appear. In the meantime, Turf Terminators is nearly gone. But the mayor said he has no regrets about touting the company.
Ethics experts said no laws were broken. But the L.A. Ethics Commission will have the final say.
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