Even the best laid plans of heavyweight City Hall insiders like Ira Swiller can sometimes go awry.
Swiller — a green energy profiteer who parlayed his connections to billionaire Ron Burkle, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and two-time DWP General Manager David Freeman into a personal fortune — has run afoul of a country folk in Kern County.
They are fighting tenaciously to stop him from cashing in on a dirty deal that threatens the quality of their rural lives and the fragile habitat of the Kern River Valley.
In classic City Hall style, Swiller is responding by throwing around money to community groups and political forces to squelch all opposition.
Two years ago, Swiller “outsmarted” the DWP ago to acquire the 68,000-acre Onyx Ranch northeast of Bakersfield in Kern County, prime land for a wind farm.
It was a questionable deal on many levels.
Swiller’s firm Renewable Resources Group partnered with the CIM Group — a well-connected development company that has gotten nearly $60 million in city funds for various projects in recent years and obtained more than $300 million in investments from city and state public employee pensions. Renewable Resources was founded in 2004 when Swiller became the mayor’s lead fund-raiser with Freeman who by the time the deal went down was the Villaraigosa’s top environmental adviser.
The DWP tried to get the property for years and included the Onyx Ranch Wind Farm in its long-range green energy plans but Swiller outmaneuvered the city’s utility and got the land for $48 million, $2 million less than the DWP offered, from the deeply divided Rudnick family.
Just like that, he spun off half the property to the notoriously corrupt City of Vernon for $42 million after the DWP refused to meet his demand for $65 million for the same deal.
When David Zahniser broke the story in the LA Times last September, Swiller through his lawyer denied knowing of DWP’s interest until early 2008 although the carefully-documented article cast considerable doubt about the truth of that and whether this was an inside deal.
For his part, the mayor — well-known for his contempt for ethical rules and laws — insisted through his spokesman that “does not
discuss his friends’ private business matters with them…It’s not part of the mayor’s agenda to worry about people’s private
Proving there may still be some justice in this world (if not in LA), Swiller, the city slicker with all his clout at CIty Hall, has run into stiff resistance from the country folk of Wendon, near Lake Isabella.
The 2,300 residents, many of the pensioners and people of modest means have banded together to form Preserve Kern River Valley – home to the largest river-bank forest in the West and more than 300 species of birds which helps bring thousands of tourists to the area every year.
It isn’t the wind Swiller is trying to harness for millions — at least not yet — but the sun, which is part of the problem.
He has set aside 500 acres for a 60 megawatt solar project, big enough to provide power to 20,000 homes when the sun is shining brightly and not obscured by the frequent dust storms from winds blowing hard off the Tehachapi Mountains.
Preserve Kern River Valley has gathered 2,300 signatures on a petition to block Swiller — that’s one for every person in the region where the average home costs $70,000 and many residents are living on modest fixed incomes. The group has stopped Swiller’s bulldozers from grading the land without permits, forced him to revise his draft environmental impact report, gotten state Fish and Game to take a hard look on the impact on wildlife while the Army Corps of Engineers have issued a cease and desist order and SoCal Edison has made him move electrical equipment above the flood plain where the solar panels are supposed to be installed.
“PKRV wants to be accurate and fair, but to me the whole deal stinks to
high heavenj,” said Jody Steel, president of the group in reaching out for support for her community.
“I never heard of a city like Vernon, and to be honest, I
feel we are up against forces we don’t understand.”