A mystery group known as the Flannery Associates has bought up $1.2 billion worth of land surrounding the Travis Air Force base in California, with the US government unable to tell who’s behind it.
The secretive company has bought up an astonishing 50,000 acres of land — paying US$800 million (A$1.22bn) for it — since 2018, almost entirely encircling the air force base.
The base is a key American gateway to the Pacific Ocean. It houses large transport aircraft used for refuelling smaller planes and sending aid and munitions around the world.
The US Air Force has launched an investigation into the company but government officials are still unable to determine who’s behind it and whether their presence around the base is a threat to national security. In fact, after eight months of searching, they have yet to identify even one person who is part of the group.
John Garamendi, a Democrat who represents California’s Bay Area, has voiced concerns about the company’s intentions and its potential links to China.
“We’re very, very concerned about this,” said Mr Garamendi.
“It’s so extensive and so secret and it’s impossible to get any information about what’s happening here.
“I have every reason in the world to believe that this land is adjacent to a critical national security platform Travis Air Force Base. Therefore — an area where spy operations or any other nefarious activity could take place…that could detrimentally impact the ability of Travis Air Force Base to operate in a moment of national emergency.”
Public records show the Delaware-registered company, officially titled Flannery Associates LLC, began buying up land around the military base in 2018. Investigators say the buy-up became frenzied as of this year.
“Now literally three sides of that base are totally controlled by the Flannery group,” Mr Garamendi said.
“Who are these people? Where did they get the money where they could pay five to ten times the normal value that others would pay for this farmland?
“To this day we don‘t know where these people are coming from.”
When asked by a reporter if the group has ties to China, Mr Garamendi responded: “I have reason to be concerned.”
Flannery Associates is now embroiled in a US$510 million (A$780 million) lawsuit against 10 local farming families, who it claims engaged in an illegal scheme to “inflate” the price of their land.
In its initial complaint, Flannery Associates claims to have “smoking gun” evidence, including text messages and emails between sellers that reveal they were illegally colluding to sell the farmland for a “substantial premium to fair market values”.
Mr Garamendi, says a lawyer representing Flannery Associates, indicated the firm is controlled by US citizens — though its unclear exactly who they are. The lawyer also claimed 97 per cent of its capital comes from American investors, while the rest is from Britain and Ireland.
Mr Garamendi also says the group has given numerous conflicting reasons for its buy-up of the land.
“We have heard scheme after scheme that makes no sense at all,” he said.
“‘We’re going to build a deep water port.’ Really? Around Travis Air Force Base? Which is 10 miles from the Bay. No, you’re not… ‘We’re going to farm’… Well at that price you’re going to lose a lot of money farming. ‘Well, we’re going to build a city’… No, you’re not going to build a city…so none of the reasons why the land is being acquired make any sense at all.”
The mystery around Flannery Associates is reminiscent of the much smaller purchase made last year of 300 acres of farmland in North Dakota just minutes from another Air Force base.
“A company in China was acquiring land around that base and wanted to build a 400-foot silo that could look directly into the base… and we were like ‘whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s going on there?’” Mr Garamendi said of that case.