Opinion: Billionaires Turn to Legal Bribery in Quest to Build Utopia

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero. | The Daily Beast / Getty.

Daily Beast, by Michael Daly, December 21, 2023

The tech billionaires seeking to build a shining new city in Northern California started with secrecy and pressure tactics.

They are now resorting to what amounts to bribery disguised as philanthropy.

The initially anonymous investor group operating under the generic name of Flannery Associates—which now calls itself California Forever—generated widespread suspicion during the five years it purchased more than $800 million worth of largely agricultural land in Solano County.

As anyone outside Silicon Valley could have foreseen, the billionaires sowed considerable ill will when they filed a $510 million antitrust suit against those who balked at accepting even an inflated price for farmland that has been in their families for generations.

The result was a series of decidedly negative receptions at six town halls that California Forever CEO Jan Sramek began hosting in late November. As Sramek has acknowledged, the project will need voter approval to build on land that is now zoned solely for agriculture.

In a cynical ploy at the final town hall meeting Monday, Sramek announced that California Forever is accepting applications for $500,000 in “community grants” to local nonprofits.

“For too long, nonprofits in Solano County have received far less funding when compared to other Bay Area counties,” Sramek said. “The California Forever project wants to help narrow that funding gap.”

Sramek was citing a United Way study, which found that Solano County has 6 percent of the Bay Area’s population, but gets less than 1 percent of the funding for nonprofits. He spoke as if California Forever is seeking to right a wrong in the county where it is wagering nearly $1 billion that it can change local use laws and make the super-rich even richer.

But where were Sramek and his deep-pocketed billionaires before they decided they needed to buy votes along with more than 60,000 acres? They could have donated to Solano groups at any point if they were so concerned about the disparity. California Forever did not respond to a Daily Beast request for comment.

A 22-year-old named Aiden Mayhood, whose family has been farming in the county for seven generations, was at Monday’s meeting. He later told The Daily Beast that many of those in attendance recognized Sramek’s offer for what it was.

“A lot of people I think viewed it as almost like bribing,” Mayhood said.

Sramek named six “initial recipients” of the grants, among them the Solano Land Trust. For the county’s conservation organization to have accepted a grant from California Forever implied some measure of approval. And farmers such as Al Medvitz, who have conservation easement arrangements with the Trust, were concerned.

“That creates some consternation for us,” Medvitz told The Daily Beast.

But Medvitz reassured himself that he and the other farmers should still trust the Trust even when billionaires were involved

“Money is pretty powerful, but it isn’t all-powerful,” he said.

As it turns out, Sramek’s performance at the town hall meeting was misleading. The Solano Land Trust says it neither sought nor received funding from California Forever.

“No, we haven’t applied for a grant,” the trust’s executive director, Nicole Braddock, told The Daily Beast.

Braddock said the trust received a personal, anonymous donation that turned out to be from Sramek and his wife for its Put a Child on The Land program, in which school kids visit pristine undeveloped spaces such as Lynch Canyon.

“We’re learning that the donor no longer considers it anonymous, which is why I can talk to you about it,” she said.

She also said, “We never take money from individuals or businesses that require endorsement support, favors influence or quid pro quo. That wasn’t part of this or any other donation that we take. And we also have taken no position on the plans of Flannery/California Forever.”

A road sign is posted near a parcel of land purchased by Flannery Associates near Rio Vista, California. | Josh Edelson / AFP via Getty.


The donation from Sramek and his wife was made at the Solano Land Trust’s annual Sunday Supper in October. The fundraiser was also attended by Maryn Anderson, a 34-year-old high school teacher whose father is a fourth-generation Solano County farmer and has refused to sell. She introduced herself to Sramek.

“I said, ‘Hi, my name’s Maryn Anderson,’ and he immediately knew who I was,” she recalled. “And I said, ‘You are suing me and my family and my community for $510 million.’”

She later told The Daily Beast, “My main message to him was, ‘You have big amends to make in this county if you really want to go forward with this project. I don’t want you to be successful, but I’m telling you, if you do want to go forward, you have amends to make, specifically with how you’ve treated many of the farmers.”

She concluded that Sramek does not understand that most of the people who did sell to him are no longer active farmers and were only leasing their property to those who are. Many active farmers have a deep attachment to the land that seems beyond Sramek’s comprehension.

“He just can’t see why we wouldn’t sell,” she recalled.

Of the California Forever crew, she says, “It was like we confused them when we said, ‘No, there’s not really an amount of money that we would sell for. We care about what we do. We believe in what we do. We believe in agriculture.’ They would just look at you like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ You know, it doesn’t compute that money couldn’t buy something.”

Anderson saw Sramek again at a town hall in Rio Vista on Dec. 5. She rose to speak and offered him a way to make amends.

“Will you commit to dropping the lawsuit against the local farmers who are not aligned with your vision, in a goodwill attempt to change the way that you are interacting with our community?” she asked.

Sramek seemed to believe that the farmers who did not sell were conspiring to hold out for more.

“Illegal and criminal,” he said.

California Forever has pressed ahead with the lawsuit even as Ian Anderson and his co-defendants filed a pending motion to dismiss on the grounds there was no wrongdoing. The mounting legal bills are enough to ruin a farmer.

“They, they want us to get in line or get outta the way, and they’re happy to… crush you in order to get what they want,” Anderson said.

And now that its disgraceful behavior leaves it in need of currying favor with voters, billionaire-backed California Forever suddenly says it wants to ensure Solano County’s nonprofits get their fair share.

The nerve of these people.

More about California Forever on the Benicia Independent: