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

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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.

As expansion manager of Campus California, Jan Sako has helped grow a 1,000-box Bay Area clothing donation operation.
Matt Smith
As expansion manager of Campus California, Jan Sako has helped grow a 1,000-box Bay Area clothing donation operation.
Textiles collected in Campus California’s Bay Area dropoff boxes.
Jamie Soja
Textiles collected in Campus California’s Bay Area dropoff boxes.

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.

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12 comments
DirtyMoney
DirtyMoney

I know Jan Sako well. I know that his time in Mozambique consisted of playing video games in the computer lab. I have also at one time worked for the clothing collection company which is in Albany NY. Huge amounts of money would appear and disappear from the bank account on a regular basis....and as a manager I know none of it was business expenses. We also used 'Garson and Shaw' for negotiating sales. I often brought up that it was rediculous that we were sending them thousands of dollars a month when they really did NOTHING for the company. The clothing company in Albany was pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in profit from clothes sales, yet, from visiting the school in Williamstown, MA I know that very little if any of it ever made it to the school.

I also know that the volunteer schools employ foreigners without work permits by collecting cash receipts from grocery stores or anywhere else they can find them and adding them to their expense reports. This is a common practice within the schools of acquiring pocket money that is non-taxable and hard to trace. They also make many promises of paymen,t only to on pay day, claim they never made such a promise.

As a part of TG you are required to give a huge part of your income (usually 50%) back to the TG. This is another way that they clear money. I personally always refused to join the TG, and they hated that. I was amazed though at how many people never stopped to realize that they were paying taxes on money that was never reaching their pocket but being moved into the TG coffers. They also pull these tricks on African TG members. They are told that if they ever need anything...a loan, pay a doctor bill ect that the money will come from this TG fund. Yet, time and time again, I have seen people in need of money for such things denied.

Anytime student or workers bring up the TG net, Amdi or money fraud the elder TG members become furious about how they are tired of answering these questions and if people want to think it is a fraud then they should just go.

They recently in Mozambique tried to pull one of their old tricks as well calling for all african TG members to cut ties with their families. They were told that the TG was their family and could provide for anything they needed. Unfortunately for them though very few if any active african TG members accepted this.

Do not be fooled by this business. Because really that is what it is, a business. There are many volunteers who give many hours trying to make a change at projects around the world. I can not lie, there are some projects that have provided huge amounts of assistance to local populations. I am sure though if the goal of Tvind as a whole was to actually help people though and not make money off every aspect the amount of help provided would be 10 fold AT LEAST.

Scotty
Scotty

I'm not sure if I discard 68lbs of clothes in a decade, but then I shop for value and durability over fashion - keep your figure and those togs will come back in style again (older I get, the shorter the cycle). A year or so ago, I noticed one of those a few blocks from my house, and thought about using it instead of stopping by Goodwill. It just felt weird, even not knowing the backstory. Deeply unsettling to imagine my worn out foreign manufactured clothes being repatriated to the people who make my next pair of foreign manufactured Dickies.

Saskehavis
Saskehavis

@KLK is correct: believe it or not, the blue Reading Tree “Books for Charity” bins are owned, placed and managed by a for-profit company called Thrift Recycling Management (TRM).

TRM has boasted of being the largest book reseller on the Internet, reporting $27 million in revenue and 4 million books sold in 2010.

According to news reports, TRM sells for-profit about 25% of the books donated to the Reading Tree “Books for Charity” bins. Another 25%, generally worthless but usable children's books — the kind sold for pennies on Amazon — are offloaded as TRM’s donation to Reading Tree, which in turn distributes these books charitably. The remaining 50 % of the donated books are said to be pulped.

So, on the surface it would appear that the for-profit TRM and the charity Reading Tree more or less evenly split the number of usable books coming into their shared donation bin program. But if it were possible to place an actual resale value of the books TRM keeps to sell on Amazon and elsewhere, and compare that figure to an estimated dollar value of the books TRM donates to Reading Tree, who knows, a very different picture might emerge, with TRM being the clear winner.

Incidentally, the figure of 3.5 million books donated by TRM, quoted here by @KLK and also reported by The Seattle Times, is actually for the last three or four years only — since about 2007. But the figure given for books *sold* by TRM covers seven years, circa 2004.

According to its website, it appears that TRM has actually donated about 10 million books since its inception, compared to the 15 million books TRM also claims to have sold to date — a seemingly more equitable ratio, until as I say one starts analyzing the relative resale values of the two sets of books.

In addition, in a recent report by The Oregonian I was disturbed to read that TRM's president Jeff McMullin also co-founded Reading Tree, and he has even served as president of Reading Tree’s board of directors. Is that even legal?

The question the California Attorney General's Office needs to ask: are the blue “Books for Charity” donation bins — owned by a for-profit company — deceptively labeled?

Here’s The Oregonian’s story on Reading Tree and TRM: http://www.oregonlive.com/paci... )

And The Seattle Times’ story: http://seattletimes.nwsource.c...

KLK
KLK

I am pleased to see this report in SF Weekly generating some discussion about how to stem the tide of clothing going to the various Tvind organizations to the detriment of Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army and all the other local non-profits who provide services to the folks here in the Bay Area.

A number of cities locally have approached this issue from different angles. A couple of years back, San Rafael and Berkeley ruled that their planning code required conditional use permits and environmental review for any and all donation boxes. The fees involved ($1,200-$1,500) were enough to temporarily scare off Campus California. Two years later, Campus California and U'SAgain quietly installed a substantial number of boxes in both cities without benefit of the necessary permits. In the case of San Rafael, with budget cutbacks and cuts in planning staff, there's no guarantee that they will follow through on this.

Two years ago here in Oakland, the city advised Campus California that boxes on City Property required a $900 encroachment permit. CCTG promptly moved those boxes onto private property and currently there are more boxes than ever.

In Sacramento, they recently passed an ordinance imposing substantial fees on each box and this is probably the most straight-forward and effective approach.

While this article and the comments are focused on Tvind, I'd also like to point out that there is a new group in the Bay Area following a very similar pattern. They're placing large blue, book donation bins all around northern California--primarily in Safeway parking lots. The banner across the top says "BOOKS FOR CHARITY" but the owner and operator of those bins is Thrift Recycling Management which is based in Washington. According to their own press releases, since their founding they've sold 15 million books online, donated 3.5 million to The Reading Tree and other non-profits, and are currently recycling 24 million books each year. To put that in layman's terms, 50-75 % of the books dropped in their donation bins are sold for paper pulp. Last year, TRM grossed 27 million dollars.

One last note: The Reading Tree group associated with TRM is based in Utah and have no connection whatsoever to the group with the same name in San Francisco that is totally legitimate and has been doing great work for years.

K in KS
K in KS

There was a tv news report a few years ago on this group and it did prompt the elected officials to seek a law concerning regulation of collection bins. Unfortunately, even though the bill passed, the governor did not sign it into law. Since there is no state-wide law, each city/municipality has its own codes. I suggest that anyone who is concern about this issue to talk directly with their city/county officials and let them know about Tvind. Chances are, once they learn about Tvind, they will want them gone from the community.

California is infested by 4 Tvind operations: Campus California (San Francisco), U'SAgain (Oakland, San Diego), Planet Aid (Los Angeles), and Gaia-Movement Living Earth Green World Action (yes...that is its name, in Sacramento and Fresno)

I hope everyone reading this will want to learn more about Tvind. There's plenty of info out there. Please learn as much as you can and help rid Tvind from your area. Wether intentional or not, Tvind hurts poor people. They take a viable and needed revenue source away from legitimate charities, and clothing away from those who need it for themselves and their families. Help protect your neighbors...get rid of Tvind.

saskehavis
saskehavis

Thanks for the in-depth report!

1) To answer “AAFerguson”: yes one other Tvind-related group mentioned in the article, Gaia (“GUY-uh”), was the subject of a CBS-5 news investigation by Anna Werner in December of 2006. The story was called “Behind the Green Box.”

Gaia, whose full name is “Gaia Movement Living Earth Green World Action,” has about 800 clothes donation bins in Chicago, Indiana and out near us in Sacramento, Fresno and elsewhere in the Central Valley.

CBS-5’s report on Gaia is no longer posted to its website, but someone made a montage of various news reports on Planet Aid — the largest Tvind group — and included several excerpts from Ms. Werner’s report on Gaia, specifically at :35 - :50, 1:03 – 1:16, and 1:41 – 1:50.

http://www.dailymotion.com/vid...

2) And to “Mike,” yes, http://www.tvindalert.com is indeed a tremendous source of further information on Gaia, Tvind and all of the other groups mentioned in the article. After also reading some articles at that website, it became quite apparent to me that the SF Weekly reporter obtained much of the background material for his story from Tvind Alert. If so, then why was no credit given?

Anyway, a photo album of that luxury retreat in Mexico for the Tvind cult members, mentioned by Mike, can be found at:

http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/...

3) As for USAgain, also allegedly linked to Tvind, it was, in fact, mentioned by the reporter — about half-way down the article’s third page.

USAgain is ALSO present in the Bay Area, with over 100 of its clothes collection bins placed at local businesses. USAgain has an 8,000 square foot facility at 1948 Sabre St. in Hayward.

USAgain, like Planet Aid, has a nationwide presence. But unlike Planet Aid, USAgain is a for-profit company.

USAgain has been phasing in newly designed, green and white clothes collection bins, as shown on its website at: http://www.usagain.com/san-fra...

The bins clearly state that “USAgain is a for-profit clothes collection company.” But what they don’t tell you is that such honest wording was forced upon USAgain in Washington State in 2010, after the Washington Secretary of State (WA SoS) determined that USAgain was not properly licensed to collect used clothes in that state.

Following a November 2009 investigation aired by KIRO-7 Eyewitness News in Seattle, it had come to the attention of the WA SoS that USAgain was engaging in “charitable solicitations,” as defined in Washington’s Charitable Solicitations Act. As a result, state officials gave USAgain two choices: either 1) register with the State as a “commercial fundraiser,” or 2) make changes to the language on its bins and website so that potential donors wouldn’t mistakenly think that USAgain was a charity.

USAgain initially resisted such requirements, but gave in, opting to change the wording on its bins and website — hence the new green and white design. In Washington State, the old style of USAgain bins, shown in KIRO-7’s reports, now have the potentially misleading text (“We cooperate with schools, non-profits and city recycling programs...”) covered up by a big sticker.

Here are the news investigations of USAgain, aired by KIRO-7:

a) http://www.kirotv.com/video/21...

b) http://www.kirotv.com/news/217...

c) http://www.kirotv.com/video/21...

4) Planet Aid is the largest of the alleged Tvind-related groups, with over 11,000 clothes donation bins placed nationwide.

Here are reports on Planet Aid from 2009 by WTTG/Fox5 News in Washington DC:

a) http://www.myfoxdc.com/dpp/new...

b) http://www.myfoxdc.com/dpp/new...

AAFerguson
AAFerguson

So... do they have permits to put these big boxes on SF sidewalks?

They're quite large and would surely need permits...

What does the Bureau of Street Use & Mapping say?How about the permit folks in the Police Dept?

And don't I recall a segment on some investigative TV program, about this scam? About 3-4 years back...

Mike
Mike

A group of journalists and civil society activists has been researching and monitoring the Tvind organisation for many years - see the webpage www.tvindalert,com. The information gathered there has been the source for most of the factual background in this article. The story fails to mention that U'SAgain, which is also collecting clothes in Oakland, is another part of Petersen's sinister 'Tvind empire', or that the group has used a large chiunk of its ill-gotten gains to build a luxury retreat for cult members in Mexico.

Sassyb
Sassyb

As a newcomer to the US, and SF in particular, I find much about my new home puzzling, and often archaic. The 'Your rags to their riches' article in this weeks' 'SF Weekly' about Campus California's clothing bins struck me as odd for a number of reasons, not least because of the apparent connection to some shady Danish crime figure... Firstly, countries like Australia and the UK have had clothing bins (successfully owned and operated by charities such as Goodwill or their foreign equivalent) for as long as I can remember. And as a means to dispose of unwanted clothing easily and without having to attend a specific location such a donation center they work wonderfully. So I fail to see why Goodwill cannot simply put their own boxes up around the city usurping those installed by Campus California.

However, the real issue for me, one I am surprised was ignored in an article such as this, is the true cost of our taste for cheap clothing. $5 t-shirts are a bargain for the consumer, but whose tiny fingers sewed them, under what godawful conditions, and for how little pay? Also, the widespread availability of such cheap, disposable clothing, has created such a glut of 2nd hand clothing worldwide that many charity organizations overseas simply cannot handle the volume of clothes being donated, and the quality of said clothing is often so poor that instead of being able to be used again, the clothes are turned into rags or end up in landfill.

Like2Bgreen
Like2Bgreen

To quote Sir Walter Scott “Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive”Personally after reading this article, I will never use California's Campus boxes again. For some reason, I thought they were connected to Goodwill Industries which I support by donation and purchasing recycled household items and good second hand clothing. When I make a donation it is my preference that it go to someone in my community or at least my country.

Pamaputo1
Pamaputo1

I would like to get in touch with Mr. Dirty Money. I lived in Mozambique for a number of years and would like to talk! pamaputo1@hotmail.com

 
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