A team of developers hoping to buy and refurbish Sorrento Tower, an affordable housing project in Clairemont, got a vital step closer to its goal Tuesday when the City Council approved it to receive up to $15 million in tax-free loans.

The council voted unanimously to approve the developers for the financing, but not before Councilwomen Donna Frye and Marti Emerald had grilled the team about its links to The Amerland Group, a troubled affordable housing developer.

As I detailed in this August story, the two men leading the Sorrento Tower project, Colin Rice and Casey Haeling, were formerly top executives at Amerland. When five other executives at Amerland and a subsidiary were charged with manslaughter in June, Rice and Haeling left and founded their own company, C&C Development.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Emerald questioned Rice, who was representing C&C Development, about his work with Amerland.

“Your long association with The Amerland Group and then distancing yourself and resurfacing as C&C raises some concerns for me. It’s a red flag,” she said.

“I need more assurances that this isn’t just Amerland with a new coat of paint,” she added.

In reply, Rice repeated what he’s already told me and the Housing Commission: He and Haeling never worked for Amerland. They were merely consultants who contracted with the company.

They’ve acknowledged a relationship with Amerland on its successful projects, but not its troubled ones.

If they were consultants, Rice and Haeling were consulting exclusively for Amerland since at least 2006, according to the resumes they submitted to the Housing Commission. They haven’t done any work for anyone else in that time, according to the documents.

And both Rice and Haeling worked out of the Amerland office, used Amerland email addresses and listed their phone number as the number for the Amerland office.

Emerald wanted to know if Rice had anything to do with Amerland’s ill-fated Casa de Vallejo project, a Bay Area senior housing complex that burned down in 2008. Solano County prosecutors allege that employees of Amerland and its subsidiary were ultimately responsible for the deaths of four people in the fire, since the fire alarms at the building had been disconnected.

At the time of the fire, Rice held the title of vice president of acquisitions for the company. His bio on Amerland’s now-defunct website said he was responsible for “property acquisitions and governmental and community relations” for the company at the time the property burned down.

Yesterday, Rice told the City Council he had nothing to do with the project.

“I had no affiliation with the acquisition, the finance, the development, or the ongoing property management, the security, nothing,” he said. “No affiliation whatsoever. Maintenance, safety. Nothing whatsoever.”

Emerald questioned why Rice cited his Amerland experience if he wasn’t associated with the company.

Rice named three projects he worked on in San Diego with Amerland. He described each of the projects as a resounding success.

Councilman Tony Young, whose district houses one of those projects, concurred with Rice’s assessment. Council President Ben Hueso pointed out that crime rates have dropped in and around the project.

Later, Frye quizzed Rice about whether he was involved in another controversial Amerland project, The Alexandria, a downtown Los Angeles apartment building.

Amerland was sued by a group of former Alexandria tenants who claimed the company forced them out of the building and failed to pay them adequate relocation expenses. Amerland settled the lawsuit for $1 million.

Rice said he was not involved in the project at all.

The council voted 7-0 to approve the developers for the financing.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@gmail.com.

Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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