Upfront: To Witt

James Lee Witt, the Bill Clinton–era Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director, was tapped in October to lead the fire-recovery nonprofit Rebuild NorthBay.

He headed FEMA in the 1990s, but more recently founded a corporation called EB5 Global Management, LLC, which seeks to capitalize on a controversial U.S. law that grants fast-track permanent residence status to foreign nationals in exchange for large investments in American development projects. The company has offices in Washington, D.C., and Little Rock, Arkansas, and was registered in Delaware in August 2015.

According to its website, EB5 Global Management sets out to “form, fund and manage special purpose limited partnerships to loan money to companies creating jobs in the United States. We align the capital requirements of domestic developers and entrepreneurs with the immigration goals of our EB-5 investors.”

Witt’s firm accomplishes this goal by “coordinating the investment of foreign capital into development projects that are located within the United States in conformity with the requirements of the EB-5 Visa Green Card program.”

EB-5 visas are granted to foreigners who make investments of at least $500,000 in areas with high unemployment or at least $1 million everywhere else, in exchange for a guarantee of 10 full-time jobs for every million dollars invested. Since its inception, the EB-5 program has been used to finance hotels, retail space, housing projects and numerous Las Vegas casinos.

Regionally, the $6 billion Treasure Island Development Project now underway in San Francisco was undertaken with EB-5 loans provided to the Lennar Corporation, the nation’s second-largest homebuilder.

Rebuild North Bay is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit initiative launched by Darius Anderson, a prominent Sacramento lobbyist and real estate investor based in Sonoma who is also the managing partner of Sonoma Media Investments, the newspaper group which owns the Press Democrat.

Anderson’s lobbying clients on record with the state of California include Station Casinos, a Las Vegas corporation that manages the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park. He also lobbies for Tesla, CannaCraft and Robertson’s Ready Mix, one of the nation’s largest concrete firms, which is owned by the Mitsubishi Materials Corporation.

And Anderson’s Kenwood Investments is a key development partner behind the eco-friendly Treasure Island project now underway. According to an August 2017 EB-5 project database compiled by the Center for Real Estate Finance Research at New York University, the Treasure Island development is funded, in part via $155 million in foreign loans provided to the Lennar Corporation to build a new community of 8,000 homes and hundreds of thousands of feet of new retail space.

Will a Treasure Island–style project find purchasers in the fire-scarred North Bay as it begins to rebuild?

According to its website, “Rebuild North Bay will be led by an integrative team of community and business leaders focused on understanding what went right and what went wrong, while developing a comprehensive plan for recovery and rebuilding.” The organization says it will eventually focus on a strategy for rebuilding, but doesn’t yet offer any specifics about what shape that may take.

Witt’s office did not respond to a request for comment about his EB5 Global Management firm and what role it may play in Rebuild North Bay.

In response to a set of questions from the Pacific Sun, Rebuild North Bay’s media liaison Ken Garcia says Witt’s outside business interests won’t play any role in the rebuilding—and that Rebuild North Bay won’t actually be rebuilding anything.

“The organization is currently focused on forming its structure,” Garcia says via email, “putting its executive committee together and identifying its core principles and needs so it can better serve the North Bay’s recovery efforts. So I can’t answer all your questions, but I can tell you this: RNB does not plan to build, or rebuild any structures. As such, there is no role for the EB-5 program, nor for Mr. Witt’s involvement in it. Witt will serve in an advisory capacity to cities, counties and others on how to effectively deal with FEMA and maximize the federal dollars that can be made available to the affected areas.”

According to the IRS, Rebuild North Bay’s 501(c)(4) nonprofit designation allows it “to encourage industrial development and relieve unemployment in an area by making loans to businesses so they will relocate to the area.”

Most EB-5 investment activity is undertaken by Asian nationals. In recent years wealthy Chinese have been the major beneficiaries of the expedited green cards, according to a 2015 study from Savills Studley, a commercial real estate firm.

According to the report, the United States issues about 10,000 of the visas annually, and as recently as 2014, 85 percent of them went to mainland Chinese nationals, who are generally less interested in a big return on their investment than on obtaining the fast-track visa—hence the emergence of low-interest, “cheap capital” loans from Chinese investors to American developers, who of late have included presidential first son Jared Kushner, who used EB-5 loans in a big New Jersey development.

A 2016 report in Forbes noted that the recent construction of the Lucky Dragon casino in Las Vegas was undertaken largely with EB-5 investments from Chinese nationals, and the result was a casino built largely with Chinese money and with the stated goal of attracting Chinese-American gamblers.

Critics of EB-5 visas include California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who called for the program’s elimination earlier this year when it was up for congressional reauthorization. She highlighted the unfairness of letting wealthy foreigners buy their way into the country while immigrants of lesser means have to wait years for a green card, or face deportation if they arrived illegally.

California is the biggest player in the EB-5 economic space, according to the California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, with around 200 so-called regional centers licensed by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. One is called New World Regional Center; it’s the center utilized in the Treasure Island project (New World is one of several regional centers operated by the Seattle-based corporation).

The pay-to-stay EB-5 arrangement is an especially sensitive issue in the North Bay and in the state’s agricultural sector where 71 percent of all fieldwork is undertaken by immigrant labor. Around 40 percent of all hospitality workers in the state are also immigrants.

The Press Democrat and its affiliated publications have emphasized Witt’s record at FEMA, but haven’t mentioned EB5. An Oct. 24 story in the Press Democrat noted that Witt has a new company involved in attaining “bridge loans” for major U.S. infrastructure projects. That’s called the Witt Global Partners Infrastructure Fund, which is seeking between $500 and $800 million for an unspecified infrastructure project. The fund was created before the North Bay fires.

Witt’s Wikipedia entry tails off in 2015 when it comes to detailing the for-profit LLCs under his control, most of which were incorporated recently, in Delaware. According to the Delaware Department of State business entity portal, Witt-controlled private-equity investment LLCs include Witt Global Partners, incorporated October 2015; Witt Global Partners Capital, incorporated January 2017; Witt Capital Partners, incorporated July 2016; Witt Global Partners Asset Management, incorporated February 2017; and Witt Global Partners GP-1, incorporated February 2017.