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Your Rags to Their Riches: Donated Clothes May Fund International Fugitive 

Wednesday, Jun 8 2011

Page 3 of 4

Eleven years ago, a northern European named Ebbe Larsen visited Etna, Calif., population 781. That's according to Corky Gussman, who recalls that Larsen was in a hurry to consummate an unusual real estate transaction. Events that followed seemed extraordinary to residents of this sleepy mountain town.

Larsen may have been a Petersen underling. Steen Thomsen reported in his 1998 complaint to Danish authorities that Amdi Petersen removed a man named Ebbe Larsen from a post as a schoolmaster in Denmark after Larsen had failed to persuade enough students to join the Teachers Group.

Gussman says of Larsen's involvement, "He's still with them. He travels around and does different things for them."

Larsen had come to Etna to buy an old Forest Service building where a mysterious European group planned to establish a boarding school training volunteers for work in Africa. The school was to be called Campus California TG, the initials standing for Teachers Group.

According to a school brochure, the school was staffed by "members of the Teachers Group (TG). The TG started in Denmark in the 1970s and has grown to almost 2,000 members worldwide."

However, the school itself wasn't going to buy the building. Instead, "there was a Delaware corporation, and I think they had an office in Florida," Gussman recalls. It was called AS Properties Ltd., and seems to focus on buying real estate and renting it to various Tvind entities. In 2004, the Chicago Tribune published an investigation of the Tvind-linked companies with names such as Gaia, Planet Aid, USAgain, Garson & Shaw, and AS Properties.

Tvind's U.S. schools train volunteers to work in Tvind-linked programs in Africa operating under the name Humana-People to People. And, according to the Chicago Tribune investigation, the institutes funneled money to Tvind by paying "hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent to a for-profit Tvind company called AS Properties Ltd."

Something similar seemed to have been going on with Campus California. On its most recently available public financial filings in 2009, Campus California TG reported "occupancy" expenses of $158,000, plus another $40,000 for "boarding" when the Etna school was operating on AS Properties-owned land.

The Chicago Tribune reported that A.S. Properties vice president Kirsten Fuglsbjerg had been indicted in Denmark. According to the Danish dossier, Fuglsbjerg also used the alias Christie Pipps.

That wasn't the only unusual thing about the Etna school. It was set up along the same lines as other Tvind-linked schools in Massachusetts and Michigan, which operate under the name Institute for International Cooperation and Development. Those schools charge $13,000 annual tuition with the promise of delivering training for development work in Africa and Latin America.

In the case of the Etna School, "training" included traveling to the Bay Area and spending days visiting merchants to ask if they'd be willing to allow Campus California TG to put clothing donation boxes on their properties. Students were even encouraged to solicit donations in public, the rationale being that they needed to pay down their tuition. The idea of the clothing bins seemed to be raising money for a tiny rural school that was already collecting a fortune in tuition.

It wasn't long before the local Pioneer Press had produced the March 2001 headline "Has a Cult Come to Etna?"

That didn't rattle residents. "I don't know. They seemed like nice people to me," Etna Motel proprietor Bart Jenkins tells me, articulating a common viewpoint. Georgia Wright, president of the Friends of the Etna Library, adds, "They brought some new thoughts to the valley."

Campus California raised eyebrows again in the winter of 2009 when the school manager went away for a few days without shutting off the water main, which froze and burst. "It ended up emptying the whole Etna water system," Gussman recalls. "There were 300,000 to 500,000 gallons of water that emptied inside the building."

Sako says the massive damage wasn't worth repairing. And besides, Campus California was refocusing its mission to just clothes recycling.

The group shut down the school, and reincorporated in October 2010 with its headquarters in Richmond. Sako says the group removed "TG" from the name, though as of last month it was still on his business card.

After the flooding, Gussman received another out-of-town visit, this time to sell the Etna building. "It was A.S. Properties, which is an affiliate of the huge corporation," he recalls. He explains that his clients were a sort of franchise. Campus California "borrowed money from A.S. Properties, which is part of the whole entity; part of the Humana People to People organization. It's out of Denmark."

Now that the school has closed, Campus California doesn't have to pay rent to AS Properties. And Sako says that to maintain its charitable purpose, Campus California now sends $220,000 per year to the Michigan and Massachusetts schools that also have Tvind links. But Campus California's connection with A.S. Properties has not broken completely. County deed records say those school facilities are owned by AS Properties Ltd.

That's not the only Tvind company connected to Campus California.

In the Bay Area, Sako says, Campus California pays a commission of 3 percent of gross receipts to Garson and Shaw, a used-textiles broker based in Atlanta that also arranges clothing sales for Gaia, Tvind's collection operation. Garson and Shaw is owned by Tvind company Fairbank, Cooper and Lyle.

In 2009, Campus California grossed $1.8 million. If the nonprofit generated a similar amount of money this year, and if it all came from clothing sales, the annual brokerage fee would presumably be in the $50,000 range.

Annette Floystrup is a retired Oakland computer technician who lives in a smallish house marked by Danish design themes. She's a Danish immigrant who happens to be uniquely poised to battle Campus California. She's vice chair of the Rockridge Community Planning Council, a NIMBY group known for opposing expansion plans of companies such as Safeway.

During annual vacations to Denmark, Floystrup read periodic newspaper updates about the underworld empire of Mogens Amdi Petersen. And when she saw mysterious clothes collection boxes sprouting up not far from her home, it seemed as if her once separate worlds had collided. She translated a Danish article about Petersen and his group for fellow neighborhood activists Valerie Winemiller and Ken Katz, who complained to local officials. Some of the boxes disappeared. But others popped up at more than half a dozen Oakland schools, one of which is just a block from Floystrup's house.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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