Cover design by Andrew J. Nilsen.
Jan Sako gives a tour of the warehouse headquarters of Campus California, a Richmond charity responsible for the more than 1,000 used clothing collection boxes that have sprouted in the Bay Area.
A worker operates a two-story clothing compacting machine. Another uses a forklift to hoist settee-sized bales of shirts, pants, jackets, and blankets onto growing edifices of clothes. A trucker pokes his head in the door to pick up bales bound for McAllen, Texas. Later comes another truck intended for Los Angeles. The bales will travel overseas from both destinations.
Sako tells me we're witnessing the new face of clothes recycling. San Franciscans clearing closet space no longer need to schlep to a Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul. Instead, they can visit 6-foot-high steel dropoff boxes, the increasingly common 24-hour ATMs of clothing donation. "In the future, we'd like to make it so everybody lives within five minutes of a box," he says.
That may sound ambitious. But Campus California is already expanding at an extraordinary pace.
When Sako came to the Bay Area five years ago after a postcollege stint volunteering in Africa, the Slovakia native's employer was a clothes recycling operation run merely as an offshoot of a private school in remote Siskiyou County. Now Campus California has closed the school, relocated to Richmond, and shifted its focus to collecting, sorting, and shipping overseas some seven million pounds of used clothing per year. The organization also recently launched a branch with 200 boxes in Phoenix. "That was just the beginning of the action," Campus California's expansion and information manager says. Next, "we'll see if we can expand to some more cities."
In San Francisco, where Campus California began placing boxes in 2008, there are currently 35, and Sako is constantly hunting for new spots. Every American annually discards 68 pounds of clothes, he says. Multiply that by the city's 800,000 residents, "and that would bring you around 56 million pounds," he says.
His goal is to make Campus California a top player in this region's league of "green" corporations to further a charitable mission of working "toward the humanization of mankind and for the care of the planet and all its species and plants."
There's nothing, it would seem, to stand in Campus California's way.
Well, actually, there is one thing: credible evidence that this organization is part of a global web of front groups led by a fugitive wanted for money laundering and fraud.
He's Mogens Amdi Petersen, a charismatic outlaw who in Europe enjoys the notoriety of a modern Jesse James.
Does Sako's feel-good business-pages tale hide a far more complicated one about a secretive European organization that thrives by selling San Franciscans' castoff garments into a supply chain with customers in Africa and Latin America? Campus California may be linked to firms such as AC Properties Ltd., Faelleseje, and Humana. Revenue from used clothes flows through nonprofits, wholesale brokers, real-estate holding firms, lenders, and developing-world charitable projects.
But nobody seems to know where the money truly ends up. A 2001 dossier prepared by Danish financial crimes prosecutors quotes him as saying the idea was to "lay down a twisted access path with only ourselves as compass holders."
And that path seems to intersect with Campus California.
Sako is aware of this potential image problem. And he works hard to fix it. Sako and other people defending Campus California have told neighborhood groups, community newspapers, PTA members, and state and local officials that there is no connection between Campus California's clothing-collection operation and an international network of companies known popularly in Denmark as Tvind. "Campus California is an independent nonprofit organization," he emphasizes during our interview.
"Any allegations about a supposed 'umbrella' organization having control over [Campus California] are completely unfounded," Sako wrote in a letter responding to criticisms from Oakland neighborhood activists.
Some tell a different version. Corky Gussman is an Etna, Calif., real estate agent who handled the purchase of Campus California's Etna headquarters, brokered its sale last year, and helped the organization handle the property during intervening years. "They're connected to a larger entity, sure," he says.
There's evidence backing this observation. And it's worth reviewing, because Campus California threatens nonprofits whose activities are transparent and charitable.
In fact, Goodwill Industries, which spends 93 percent of revenue on jobs programs, has lobbied the legislatures of California, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut as well as city councils in California and across the country to pass legislation and ordinances regulating the placement of these unmanned clothing bins.
"It's interesting to note that many of these bins, with a label on them saying Campus California, are being operated by some of the people who have been connected with Humana or Gaia, and there are a couple of other names that they go by," Goodwill Industries of the Greater East Bay CEO John Latchford says in reference to reputed Tvind fronts. "For us, the question became, who are these people and organizations? And what are they doing?"
Though Petersen and the activities of his inner circle are shrouded in mystery, much of his reputed business empire operates in plain sight. He is so well-known in Denmark that some journalists specialize in writing about him and his organization. His name never seems to appear on an official document (as long as it's not an arrest warrant), but he reportedly controls assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He holds extraordinary sway over his core followers, who call themselves the Teachers Group. They've been investigated in Europe as a cult.
Whether or not that label fits, there's something untoward about the way Petersen's organization shifts money and key personnel around the globe.
The group owns ships, U.S. real estate, schools in Europe and the United States, agriculture and used clothing interests, and other operations in Latin America and Africa, as well as clothing recycling companies in a growing number of U.S. cities and counties. Through all these entities twists a consistent line of control, exerted by core Petersen followers, who seem to pop up time and again leading supposedly unconnected Tvind groups worldwide.