Portland City Council stripped a local green energy nonprofit of a city-awarded grant Wednesday after an investigation by the Oregonian revealed the organization’s executive director had a history of financial crimes. The city ordinance, passed unanimously, transferred the $10 million grant to nonprofit Earth Advantage to carry out the grant responsibilities, which aims to distribute cooling units to vulnerable Portland residents before the next heatwave.
Following the record-breaking heatwave in June that killed at least 54 people in Multnomah County and over 100 people statewide, the city’s voter-approved green energy project fund—Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF)—proposed distributing 15,000 portable cooling units to vulnerable Portland residents over the next five years. The program was created after a county report found that most of the people who died during the heatwave lacked access to air conditioning.
The program, titled the Heat Response Program, is PCEF's largest single project to date. The program had to move quickly; according to PCEF manager Sam Baraso, the first order of 3,000 portable heat pumps and other cooling units needed to be placed by the end of 2021 to arrive in time for distribution in the spring.
PCEF opened an application period for an organization that could manage purchasing all of the cooling units and heat pumps in October 2021 and received two applicants: Diversifying Energy and Earth Advantage.
In November, PCEF’s grant committee—a group of volunteer community members tasked with evaluating grant proposals—recommended Diversifying Energy for the grant because of the related work history referenced in the organization’s application. Portland City Council approved the grant on December 1.
Less than two weeks later, the Oregonian published evidence that Diversifying Energy’s executive director Linda Woodley had gone to prison for defrauding energy companies, accumulated millions of dollars in tax liens, and possibly mischaracterized the organization’s previous experience—experience that won Diversifying Energy the PCEF grant.
PCEF staff investigated the Oregonian’s findings and could not independently verify Diversifying Energy’s role in major energy projects that Woodley said she had helped lead. In one case, Woodley claimed she managed a $30 million energy program in the Los Angeles area, but, according to the Oregonian, the programs’ overseers said they had never heard of her.
“There remain concerning inconsistencies that call into question Diversifying Energy’s ability to deliver on this particular grant award,” said PCEF program manager Sam Baraso during Wednesday’s city council vote. “I want to be clear: Linda has done good work in the community in recent years, however on a substantially smaller scale.”
Woodley called the Oregonian’s article and subsequent scrutiny of her work a “character assassination.” Woodley disputed that she has a history of financial crimes after completing her prison sentence for committing tax and bankruptcy fraud 25 years ago and argued that PCEF staff only gave her a day and a half to provide evidence and references for the projects Diversifying Energy cited in its grant application.
Baraso and City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability that houses the PCEF program, both noted that the Heat Response Program needs to continue moving forward quickly if the city wants to get cooling units into homes before summer 2022. Because of that short timeline, Rubio says the city must move forward with a different organization promptly.
“Saving lives depends on the successful execution of this heat-response grant,” Rubio said. “That’s the bottom line for me: to move the dial on improving outcomes for the lives of Black, Indigenous, and communities of color, vulnerable and low-income residents.”
It’s currently unclear how the program’s failure to vet the grantees will impact the Heat Response Program timeline. Following a verification of the work experience cited in its grant application, Baraso notified Earth Advantage in mid-December of the city council’s plan to award them the grant.
“I would expect that Earth Advantage would do their homework with equipment manufacturers [and] distributors so that they have a firm understanding of the work and timeline, but we do not have that information yet,” Baraso wrote in an email to the Mercury ahead of the City Council vote.
Portland does not have a citywide policy for verifying and evaluating possible grant recipients, rather each city bureau and program can evaluate grant applicants as they see fit. Mayor Ted Wheeler noted that the pressure to move the Heat Response Program along quickly may have contributed to the program’s lack of vetting.
“There is not a day that goes by when we are not criticized in some capacity—in one of our programs, in one of our bureaus or more—about the speed with which we get dollars out to the community,” Wheeler said. “Competing against that desire to act quickly is the necessity of being thorough in our due diligence to make sure that we are using taxpayers' money wisely, effectively, and that the program is likely to be successful.”
PCEF staff is currently reviewing its vetting process but does not yet have specifics on how the program will improve its accountability standards to avoid repeating the mistake in the future.
“[This mistake] wasn’t averted because we caught it or because of our accountability mechanisms catching it or because of anything that happened internal to a bureau catching it,” Wheeler said. “It happened because somebody went to the press and the press did their own independent investigation. If that had not happened, we would still be blissfully ignorant about this issue even existing.”
The Heat Response Program is still soliciting applications for community organizations that can distribute the heat pumps and cooling units to priority populations, like low-income Portlanders, seniors, and people of color. The program will also submit quarterly reports on its progress to the City Council as an accountability tool moving forward.