Unmasking Wapato’s mysterious potential buyer

For more than two months Garison Russo has been working on a potential deal with the county

A sign outside Wapato Jail seen on September 7, 2016. (KOIN)
A sign outside Wapato Jail seen on September 7, 2016. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The man who Multnomah County officials hope will buy the Wapato jail for $9 million is a former flower delivery driver who has left a trail of unpaid debts as well as accusations that he committed forgery and theft in 2011, according to an investigation by the Portland Tribune.

For more than two months the man who calls himself Garison Russo has been working on a potential deal with the county. He’s a self-described real estate deal-maker who boasts of wealthy investors, bold plans, and key contacts in cutting-edge agricultural and energy technology. His cell phone number displays as hailing from Beverly Hills.

Earlier this fall, based on his plans for an all-organic “sustainable agricultural village” at Wapato, Chair Deborah Kafoury on Sept. 21 signed a non-binding letter of intent to sell the property to Russo — a fact that became public a week later, after Commissioner Loretta Smith announced it. He reportedly laid out his vision to Kafoury and some of the county’s elected commissioners in a closed-door, confidential meeting last Tuesday.

But while Russo contends his offer is legitimate, he has refused to answer questions about his past and seemingly obstructed efforts to research him. To track down background information on Russo, the Portland Tribune last week asked him the year of his birth, which he said was 1963.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 Media partner.

Records of a Garison Russo born in 1963 could not be located, but the Tribune did find considerable information pertaining to Gary Anthony Russo, born in 1960. Interviews with past associates as well as a review of public records and newspaper clippings have confirmed that he is same man trying to buy Wapato. The Wapato bidder has refused to confirm or deny it.

Gary Russo in an undated photo provided to the Portland Tribune in October 2016
Gary Russo in an undated photo provided to the Portland Tribune in October 2016

The Tribune’s findings have raised the question of what sort of vetting a public agency should do and when in a deal like this, according to three people who are either involved with the deal or have interacted with Russo in the past. In 2012, the city of West Linn developed concerns about Russo’s ability to deliver on the redevelopment of the Blue Heron Mill property based on one meeting with him and a city librarian’s research into his then-company, according to former West Linn officials.

Commissioner Smith has said she wishes the county had done more research prior to issuing its letter of intent to sell to Russo. The letter was issued just as pressure was mounting on county officials to consider the never-used jail as a homeless shelter.

Chair Kafoury, however, has stressed that the letter of intent she signed is non-binding, adding that the focus right now is whether Russo has the funds.

“We’re not going into this thing with our eyes closed,” she said in an earlier interview. “We’re doing our due diligence, and that’ s what this time period is for.”

Asked to explain why he provided an incorrect year of birth to the Tribune and why he now uses a slightly different first name than in the past, Russo declined to say.

In an email Thursday he complained that two previous Tribune articles were “full of lies and mischaracterizations.” Asked for specifics, he said that the failures of two previous business deals he tried to broker in the area, which were described in the earlier articles, were not his fault.

He called his personal background irrelevant, and stressed the potential if he and his “business partners” can pull off the deal, saying it would create hundreds of “living wage” jobs with profit-sharing, day care and scholarships for employees.

“Of the jobs I will create, at least 80 percent will be skilled and unskilled labor jobs,” he said. “I will welcome and train the homeless, veterans, single parents on welfare, non-violent offenders in the corrections systems, students with no job experience, etc … We will help these people get back on their feet.”

Russo also said his proposal will include “a major research and development operation” as part of an “entrepreneurial incubator in funding new startup ventures,” creating more jobs.

Raised on a farm

Russo has said he grew up on a farm in Massachusetts as part of a large Italian-American family.

He studied at the Boston Architectural College for two semesters but did not graduate, according to college records. He has claimed to have studied at Harvard University as well, though the school declined to release information about him.

He is quick, charming and funny. In an early interview he asked a Tribune reporter who had described him as “mysterious,” to add “ruggedly handsome” as well. Before he stopped answering questions, he expressed eagerness to cooperate with the paper to share his vision for Wapato. Phase two of the project, he said, “will blow you away.”

But Russo stopped cooperating after the Tribune began asking about his work history. His promises of sharing his detailed plans or providing a longer interview did not come to pass. Russo also did not connect the Tribune with his “team” of investors and lawyers.

Records show that Russo has founded several companies over the years, such as Earthworks Energy LLC in California. The Tribune could find no evidence that the companies have entered into major deals or employed people other than Russo.

Two people who had worked with Russo on deals in the past said he has left debts in his wake and was not able to deliver on the plans he had offered to entice investors.

One of those, Massimo Cavallaro of California, said Russo did seem to have contacts and access to energy technology. He used them to try to put deals together in which he takes a percentage. Cavallaro worked for years with Russo on a potential solar wind farm deal only to have the project’s investor back out due to concerns about Russo.

“One day [Russo] just up and vanished,” Cavallaro said. “He owes money to a lot of people.”

On March 25, 2011, a police report was filed with the Menlo Park, California police against Russo accusing him of theft and forgery, according to a cover sheet of the police report. The matter involved a $6,511 check that, according to Cavallaro, Russo took from Cavallaro’s mother and step-father’s home and forged, then deposited in Russo’s account. Cavallaro said the bank reversed the charge, so the couple didn’t lose any money. Records show they subsequently asked prosecutors not to file charges against Russo, acording to Nicole Acker, a spokeswoman for the Menlo Park Police.

Russo declined to comment on the allegations.

Two earlier associates and former employers of Russo, Susan Mills, owner of Mills The Florist in Palo Alto, and Elena Mariti, former owner of the now-defunct Bella Flora Art, declined to comment on him.

He worked for years in customer service and delivery between the two flower shop jobs. Subsequently, in 2008, he told The Palo Alto Weekly that he was an “interior plantscaper” at Facebook.

Russo declined to discuss records located by the Tribune of unpaid debts, tax liens and other matters from his past, including court records showing Russo and Mariti filed restraining orders against one another in San Mateo court.

Mariti later obtained a judgment against him for more than $59,000, records show.

Russo has been divorced twice. According to one document, Russo owed the state of California more than $109,000 in child support and interest in 2014.

Russo said the details of his past are unrelated to his plans for developing the county’s shuttered jail, which include the use of hydroponics as well as aquaponics. Aquaponics can be used to grow and harvest tank-raised tilapia, which is one of the plans Russo has mentioned.

And he suggested past failures are immaterial.

“How many times did it take Thomas Edison to ‘get it right’ when he was trying to create the light bulb?” he wrote in an email Thursday morning. “How many times did it take Bill Gates to get Microsoft up and running? Or Google? Or Apple?

“…It doesn’t matter where and when I was born, what my past ventures have been called, why some of my past ventures failed and why some succeeded, what tax liens I may or may not have, or anything else,” he added. “All that matters is my ability to convince my financial partners to buy Wapato and for us to re-purpose it into a vibrant, successful enterprise that will constantly create new jobs and create year round organic food supply.”

Russo said he is still in conversations with county officials and that he has submitted a “preliminary” letter showing proof that his investors have the $9 million.

County officials recently have declined comment on the specifics of the deal’s timing or precisely where things stand with Russo, except to say the process is ongoing.