CONCORD — Allegations of influence peddling and backroom deal-making involving two local homebuilders last year threatened to derail the selection of the Concord Naval Weapons Station developer, records show.
An unidentified builder reportedly asked Catellus Development Corp. for money in return for securing Concord City Council support, prompting Concord to ban negotiations with third parties. Shortly before city leaders were set to consider a developer for the former base, then-Mayor Tim Grayson raised concerns that Catellus was discussing a side deal with the Seeno family, owners of the Concord-based home building empire.
With millions of dollars and the success of the long-planned residential and commercial project at stake, city staffers acted swiftly to preserve the integrity of the developer selection process, according to emails this newspaper obtained.
The first issue arose a month into the city's negotiations with Catellus and Lennar Urban, the two firms vying to develop the first phase of the former military base.
"Are you guys getting pressured by one or more locals indicating some sort of purported mandatory 20 percent to local builders?" Michael Wright, former executive director of the Local Reuse Authority wrote in a June 1 email to Catellus Vice President Steve Buster.
Catellus President Ted Antenucci initially told Wright that a local builder had expressed a desire to be involved in the project. Then on June 5, Antenucci wrote in an email to Wright that the situation had "escalated." Antenucci explained recently that the builder — whom he declined to identify but said was not a Seeno company — had asked to be involved in the "economics of our proposal."
"It was a significant request and we were told that if we didn't comply they were going to talk to Lennar and that raised a concern of ours and we asked that language be added to the (negotiating) agreement," Antenucci said.
No local builders approached Lennar, spokesman David Satterfield said.
The city took Antenucci's allegations seriously.
"I have discussed situation with city manager and city attorney, they are appalled," Wright wrote Antenucci on June 6. "We will go into closed session to get council to approve very specific language (that) will preclude either firm from entering in to any side agreements with development or labor because it impacts value.
"Depending on the specific language used to justify the ask, this may be a situation where we are bound to notify the district attorney," Wright added.
On June 26, the city prohibited Catellus and Lennar from negotiating with vertical builders and other third parties. Both Wright and City Manager Valerie Barone declined to comment about the possible influence peddling that led up to the council action.
The selection process seemed to be back on track until September when Grayson claimed that Catellus was discussing a partnership with the Seeno family. In 2014, Seecon Financial & Construction Company, a Seeno company, had responded to the city's call for developers but was not among the four firms invited to submit a formal request for proposal for the base reuse project.
On Sept. 17, less than two weeks before the council was to discuss choosing the weapons station developer, Wright sent Antenucci and Buster an urgent email saying Grayson was "adamant" Catellus and Seeno were talking and that "Seeno is plotting some way of gaining control of the project through Catellus."
A Seeno representative could not be reached for comment. Although the email said his information came from a source within the Seeno organization, Grayson on Tuesday said he did not recall saying that. However, he felt it was his responsibility to notify city staff so they could investigate.
"We were assured that something like that could not happen," Grayson said.
Antenucci said a consultant called him on Sept. 10 offering to arrange a meeting with a Seeno family member, but he declined. Catellus strongly denied any involvement with Seeno companies.
Wright believed them.
"I have already told city this is BS (in those terms)," Wright wrote Buster on Sept. 17. "This is Mary Jo Rossi throwing mud on a wall to see what sticks."
Rossi, a well-connected local political consultant who has represented candidates for elected office as well as several East Bay police unions, is Grayson's Assembly campaign manager. She arranged for Grayson to meet twice in August with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a principal at an investment fund that does business with Lennar. She also joined council members and city staffers when they visited a Catellus project in Austin, Texas, and toured Lennar's development in Irvine last summer. The trips were open to the public and Rossi said she paid her own way.
"I have no idea what Mike Wright is talking about," Rossi wrote in an email last week.
Wright said he does not know who started the Seeno rumor and there was no truth to it.
"The issue got raised multiple times and staff answered the question multiple times that there was no relationship between Catellus and the Seeno family of companies," he said last week.
Lisa P. White covers Concord and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011.
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