By Will Swaim | Watchdog.org
TUNICA, Miss. — April 22 ought to have been a big day in Tunica County, Mississippi, home of what’s supposed to be America’s future.
That’s when GreenTech Automotive Inc., founded by high-profile politicians to build electric vehicles in one of the poorest places in the nation, announced a partnership with China-based JAC to build 2,000 vehicles by the end of 2013.
The company recently has run into controversy over its effort to raise cash through an unusual federal visa program. That process, called the EB-5 program, allows foreign nationals to obtain a U.S. visa in exchange for $500,000 investments in targeted U.S. businesses. GreenTech is one of those businesses.
That controversy might have gone unnoticed if not for the magnetic attraction of GreenTech’s chairman Terry McAuliffe, the Virginia gubernatorial candidate and former Democratic National Committee chairman. McAuliffe made GreenTech a centerpiece of his campaign for Virginia’s top spot, evidence, he said, of his ability to produce good jobs. When McAuliffe was slammed for relying on government subsidies and EB-5 cash to fund his venture, he announced on April 5 — weirdly, it seemed to many — that he had actually resigned as the company’s chief on Dec. 1.
That created yet another controversy for the start-up company.
Despite those controversies — and despite the promise of hundreds of jobs in a community where the unemployment rate is over 20 percent — in Tunica, the GreenTech/JAC deal elicited only a strange kind of quiet, even at GreenTech itself.
Through the tinted windows of the company’s office in a Tunica strip mall, we could see beaming fluorescent lights and high-walled office cubicles. But no one answered when we knocked at the locked door.
The other strip-mall occupants, two payday loan companies, said they had never met the GreenTech employees.
“They pretty much keep to themselves,” said one.
Then a woman identifying herself as a GreenTech employee opened the door at GreenTech HQ, but only to say that she could not comment. Besides, she said, the GreenTech workers inside “do boring stuff, accounting and sales.”
That’s when two county sheriff’s investigators and a city policeman rolled up. The woman slyly — or perhaps with a sense of embarrassment — slipped back inside and locked the door behind herself.
GreenTech employees inside had called to complain, the lead officer explained. The other officers listened to him and to us briefly and then departed to handle other business. The lead gave us his business card and stayed on to drink sweet tea with us at the nearby Blue and White Restaurant.
“I can’t arrest you for knocking on a door,” he said.
He told us most people in Tunica would have simply told us what we wanted to know. But not the GreenTech employees. We shouldn’t take it personally, he said.
“They’re pretty secretive,” he said. “Just like the Russians.”
That may explain why no one in Tunica — not GreenTech employees, not people on the streets, in bars, casinos or diners, nor people in their homes or at work — mentioned the big news. While GreenTech and JAC’s press release got wide play in some online auto magazines and a few mainstream news outlets, locals remarked on the apparent lack of progress at the company’s still weedy undeveloped site near the intersection of State Highway 304 and legendary U.S. Highway 61, just outside the city center. That vacant field, marked by a wooden sign that this is the future home of GreenTech Automotive, is a gift from the people of Mississippi, along with some loans and tax breaks.
GreenTech officials won’t respond to inquiries from Watchdog. But as part of its $85-million libel suit against Watchdog, GreenTech attorneys said in April, “Phase one of construction” at the Highway 61 lot “is complete and the project remains on schedule to be finished as projected.”
Next door, in the Desoto County city of Horn Lake, it’s a different story — except for the secrecy and apparent lack of actual manufacturing. Locals said workers almost daily drive GreenTech’s tiny MyCars — two-seater, all-electric vehicles with a 25-mile range — around the facility in what looks like a test-drive caravan.
“They test their cars out here almost everyday,” said a worker in the city’s code enforcement office across the street.
“Every couple of days, they just parade for hours, eight or 10 of them, various colors,” said John Affuso, who has lived across the street from the plant for 42 of his 50 years. “And they drive them around and around the building for hours. It looks to me like they’re testing the batteries.”
Affuso remembers when the manufacturing plant opened last summer. Former President Bill Clinton showed up, along with McAuliffe and Hillary Clinton’s younger brother, Anthony Rodham, who runs the company’s EB-5 program. It was probably no surprise that the company, more famous for its political contacts than its automotive expertise, invited public officials from all over this Northwestern part of Mississippi. Affuso, a former planning commissioner, was invited too, and he went.
Did it look as if GreenTech was busy building cars inside? “Now that?” he said. “No.”
GreenTech has reported that it sells the cars worldwide, but the privately held company does not release sales information. Like his neighbors, Affuso hasn’t seen new cars roll out of the plant.
“I haven’t seen any of those cars leave,” he said. “I thought maybe they were leaving by rail because they were supposedly building all these cars.” There was a time when the company rolled display models out front of the Horn Lake plant “and people could come by and look at them.”
But the cars were nowhere in evidence the day after the big announcement. When four Watchdog reporters walked into the Horn Lake plant front office, a GreenTech employee in a spirited green golf shirt simply walked us off the property. No, he said, we couldn’t have a tour of the facility. No, he couldn’t tell us about their work there. No, he couldn’t tell us what other business occupied the building. If we wanted any information, we’d have to contact Marianne McInerney, executive vice president of sales and marketing. The entire interaction lasted five minutes.
McInerney did not respond to a request for comment. Shortly after that request, Adams and Reese, the company’s Mississippi law firm, emailed Watchdog attorneys demanding that reporters cease their “inappropriate and harassing” behavior and direct all questions “through counsel.”
Adams and Reese have not responded to requests for comment on this or other stories.
“It’s kind of strange that I don’t know anyone that works there,” Affuso said. “You would think that there would be some folks from around here that work there. But as far as I know, there’s nobody around here that works there. I had plenty of friends that applied for jobs over there. And none of them got jobs.”
What’s it like living next door to a company that is hammering out the future of American car manufacturing?
“It’s very quiet,” Affuso said.
Contact Will Swaim at [email protected]
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