No sex at Fort Ross

JULY 7, 2010

The problem is that there’s no sex in this story. It’s got just about everything else – crime, international intrigue, a mysterious Russian billionaire who likes to acquire pricey antiquities, craven politicians, a bankrupt historic state park and even an action hero movie star turned governor – but as of press time, no sex.

Maybe that’s why no one wants to talk about the new Fort Ross State Park memorandum of understanding between the state of California and the Moscow-based Renova Group, which is reportedly facing a potential two-billion Swiss franc fine in Switzerland. (Click here to read my July 1 story “Fined Russian firm gets Ft. Ross” for more on Renova’s troubles).

This is very disappointing because I have still have tons of questions about how the MOU came about. Like why, of all the corporations in the world, Renova – an oil, mineral, telecom and financial giant in Russia – came to be the state’s choice to take over virtually all funding for struggling Fort Ross State Park. Or how much research state officials did on Renova, which is not only facing huge fines in Switzerland for failing to follow financial disclosure rules, but was actually convicted of similar charges back in January (company officials deny any wrongdoing). Or who in the department (as well as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office) knew about Renova’s ongoing troubles in Switzerland when Schwarzenegger signed the MOU.

These are important questions, right? I mean, it is a little unprecedented for a foreign firm to come in and basically take over a state park. And yet none of the state officials who have jurisdiction over Fort Ross that I contacted would say a thing about the Renova agreement.

Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, D-Eureka, whose district encompasses Fort Ross, had no comment “as it is an ongoing legal issue involving a foreign government,” according to one of his aides. Ditto Sen. Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, who didn’t respond to an e-mailed request for comment, though in her defense she’s apparently suffering from some sort of illness that has severely limited her ability to carry out her Senate responsibilities. Assemblyman Jared Huffman, the chairman of the Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, refused to comment on the Fort Ross MOU with Renova. And, of course, no one at Governor Schwarzenegger’s office wanted to comment on whether he (or anyone) knew about Renova’s problems in Switzerland when he signed the MOU on June 22.

Seriously – a Russian company that’s already been convicted of financial disclosure violations in Switzerland is taking over an historic state park and the relevant legislative officials are refusing to say anything at all? What gives?

It’s the lack of sex. Has to be. I mean, last fall everyone had some kind of comment about then-Assemblyman Mike Duvall, R-Yorba Linda, getting caught talking about alleged sexual encounters with young female lobbyists. Or when still-Senator Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, got arrested in March for DUI while leaving a gay club in Midtown. Everyone’s still commenting on that one.

Yes, what this story needs is sex. To find it, I did what I always do when I want to sex up a story: I called the state parks department.

I started by asking department spokesman Roy Stearns if I could to speak with someone familiar with the Fort Ross MOU. He routed me to Jenny Donovan, the public safety superintendent for the department’s Russian River District, which includes Fort Ross State Park. A typical exchange went as follows:

Me: “How much research was done on Renova before the MOU was signed?”

Donovan: “I can’t tell you any research was done… I have no idea.”

I went back and e-mailed Stearns, asking if he could put me in touch with someone – anyone – at the parks department who could speak to the level of research state officials did on Renova. He still hasn’t replied at press time.

But Donovan did say that the whole Fort Ross thing started back in November at the Russians’ behest. It was then that Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak visited Fort Ross, which due to budget cuts was open just three days a week. He then contacted “someone” in state government (Donovan was “not sure” whether it was the state parks department or Schwarzenegger’s office, or both) about doing something to save the park.

“We were set to close the fort down and they [Renova] stepped forward,” Donovan said. But then she added something new: “We’re looking at a variety of partnerships [like this] up and down the state.”

It’s not particularly sexy, but it is chilling: the only thing state parks official will say for certain about the Fort Ross MOU is that there are more to come.

-Anthony Pignataro

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