Sunday, February 5, 2023
Feb. 5, 2023

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Forterra’s report finds it acted inconsistently but in ‘good faith’


SEATTLE — Forterra NW, the Seattle-based land conservancy, applied for a federal grant using inconsistent information, took for granted its partnership with the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe and did not properly obtain the tribe’s consent for parts of the application, a law firm’s investigation found.

But the law firm, hired by Forterra to conduct a review after the tribe alleged misleading conduct by the organization, found that Forterra, in the grant process, acted in “good faith” and that “any missteps and misstatements do not appear to have resulted from any malicious or deceptive intent.”

The tribe’s accusations have roiled the nonprofit, which has for years partnered with local governments and philanthropists on conservation efforts. Last month, two big-name philanthropic investors and 80 former staffers called for leadership changes at Forterra.

Last week, Forterra fired a top executive who oversaw real estate transactions. That executive, Tobias Levey, was formerly accused of fraud, embezzlement and self-dealing in 2017 in a New York project that involved property acquisition, housing development and logging. The report released by Forterra Thursday didn’t say anything about that matter.

The Snoqualmie Tribe, in a statement Thursday, said the findings of Forterra’s investigation confirmed the tribe’s allegations.

“The Snoqualmie Tribe is proud to have stood up for what’s right and will continue to hold accountable bad actors who seek to deceive Tribal Nations. This third-party report proves our Tribe’s claims,” tribal Chair Robert M. de los Angeles said.

Beth Birnbaum, chair of Forterra’s board of directors, offered “an unequivocal apology” to the Snoqualmie Tribe.

“Forterra failed to respect the sovereign rights of the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe in the preparation and submission of this grant application,” Birnbaum said in a statement. “The Board of Directors will be reviewing Forterra’s actions to improve its processes, internal controls and pursue successful collaborations with sovereign Tribal nations as well as Forterra’s community partners.”

Forterra CEO Michelle Connor also offered “a full apology” and said she has “enlisted outside support” to improve the organization’s practices.

“We are committed to leaning into the findings of the report to inform our broader work and organizational systems,” Connor said.

In September, the Snoqualmie Tribe accused Forterra of misleading the tribe and the federal government in its application for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant worth up to $20 million to help fund a sustainable timber and housing initiative.

The idea of the regional initiative, called Forest to Home, is to harvest timber with sustainable methods on land owned by partners like the tribe, create jobs in the Snohomish County town of Darrington by manufacturing wood panels there and use the panels to build affordable housing in places like Tacoma and Tukwila.

The tribe initially supported the initiative but, after developing apprehensions, had to obtain a copy of the application through a third party because Forterra wouldn’t share the document unless the tribe signed a nondisclosure agreement, de los Angeles wrote in a letter to the USDA withdrawing the tribe’s support for the grant.

De los Angeles said the grant application appeared to include timber harvesting plans that the tribe never agreed to and unrealistic claims about outcomes for vulnerable communities. He also questioned whether partners were “tokenized” to obtain the grant, which Forterra celebrated in September in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood.

The allegations have raised questions about whether Forterra can make good on its promises to provide jobs and development in Darrington and housing in Tacoma, Tukwila and other communities

The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation and the Seattle Foundation, which have invested in Forterra’s work, expressed concerns last week about the delayed status of a long-planned housing development on Hilltop. Forterra has selected an unnamed new developer to do a “feasibility assessment” for the project before potentially taking over the permitting, design and construction, The News Tribune in Tacoma reported Wednesday.

In response to the Snoqualmie Tribe’s allegations, Forterra hired the Angeli Law Group to conduct an internal investigation.

That investigation, released Thursday, found that Forterra’s USDA application was “internally inconsistent” about how much timber would be harvested and how much would be needed to meet the initiative’s goals.

It also found Forterra did not discuss with the tribe how much timber it intended to harvest from the tribe’s land. And it found that while Forterra guaranteed the tribe control over how much timber was harvested from its land, that guarantee wasn’t reflected in the grant application.

The investigation found that Forterra told the USDA the tribe would provide nearly $1.5 million in matching funding without obtaining the tribe’s consent to include that in the application.

On Thursday, de los Angeles said the tribe is “still waiting for accountability” from Connor and Forterra’s board, arguing the organization should have apologized right away, rather than expressing shock and engaging in what the tribe perceived as attacks.

Levey, the Forterra vice president who was fired last week, led the grant writing process and was the only Forterra staffer in direct contract with the tribe throughout the process, according to the Angeli Law Group’s report.

The report “found no direct and undisputed evidence of deceptive intent,” but described certain interactions with the tribe as troubling, with available information suggesting that “these specific areas of concern were attributable” to Levey.

“I fully own my role as lead author and agree that I made mistakes without malice,” Levey said in an interview Thursday.

Levey was accused by a former business partner in a 2017 civil lawsuit of failing to perform work for its development project on time and transferring more than $100,000 to “one or more sham entities.” The lawsuit also alleged that Levey pledged the project’s revenue to a separate business venture with someone else and had the development site logged on his own.

The parties agreed to discontinue the lawsuit about nine months later.

Levey mentioned the New York allegations in an interview after he was fired by Forterra. He said he initially fought the allegations but ultimately settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount of money.

Levey said there was a subsequent criminal investigation by local prosecutors. It didn’t result in charges, though he was required to issue “an admission and an apology” and to perform community service, he said.

He said he disclosed the matter in writing to Forterra leaders when he was hired in 2018 and was “fully transparent” about it.

The New York matter was not a cause of Levey’s termination, a Forterra spokesperson said Thursday, declining to comment on when the organization learned about the matter.