Last month we highlighted the case of waste services firm Recology, which won a contract renewal in Vacaville, Calif., despite not having the most affordable bid for the Vacaville municipal government. Recology’s warm relations with local residents and customers made their offer more appealing to elected officials, dollars and cents notwithstanding. This month brings us an example of how not to manipulate the political process, and what happens to firms that try to take a shortcut to winning the big vote.
Louisiana has a reputation for dirty politics, and the companies associated with River Birch Landfill —Deft LLC, B.L.U. Communications, N.C. General Contractors and Westside Construction Services Inc. —aren’t doing much to change that perception. A recent report from the New Orleans Times-Picayune has detailed how, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, then-Mayor Ray Nagin used his emergency powers to open a new landfill, dubbed “Chef Menteur,” to handle the resultant swell in debris removal needs. Nagin stood by the controversial landfill even as the local council member withdrew her support (community organizing in action!), and Chef Menteur began to eat into the tipping fees being collected by the operators of River Birch.
Nagin stuck to his guns, though, until a series of suspiciously timed campaign contributions from River Birch affiliates were donated to his cash-strapped campaign. Abruptly, and with no explanation, Nagin opposed the landfill he had created, and fought against the rezoning it would require to operate in the future. The reversal of position was so sudden and unexplained that the U.S. District Judge assigned to the case in the resultant lawsuit felt compelled to ask the city’s representative, “So what is the city’s position this morning? Can you tell me that now?” In the end, Chef Menteur remained closed, and is probably one of the few landfills in the country to have been open for all of six months.
The Chef Menteur saga was just one of several incidents that have been re-examined in recent weeks. In 2008, a proposed construction materials recycling facility received the support of four nearby neighborhood associations, as well as the unanimous approval of the local planning commission. The project, however, would have the effect of siphoning off some of the material that ordinarily made its way to River Birch’s landfills, among others. The local councilwoman opposed and eventually killed the project, and in a matter of weeks, eight firms linked to River Birch had contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the campaign accounts of the councilwoman and her son, who was running for state representative.
Similar tales abound: generous donations to a backer of an executive order that critics claim would have hindered a proposed landfill that would compete with River Birch; a $160 million contract awarded to River Birch for garbage collection from the Jefferson Parish President, also a recipient of River Birch’s largesse. The James Bond villain Goldfinger was fond of saying, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” River Birch passed three a long time ago.
Cynical developers might be reading this and wondering if the River Birch way might not be more effective; after all, it sure delivered the desired results. The truth is though, that sooner or later, your past catches up to you. The Louisiana Board of Ethics has accused the landfill and its executives of setting up “strawman” companies to re-route more than $300,000 in campaign contributions to chosen candidates, in violation of legal contribution limits for corporations. Federal investigators have won a guilty plea on the charge of bribery from a state official, and prosecutors believe that the briber was one or both of River Birch’s co-owners. And that $160 million garbage collection contract? It has been invalidated, as a federal probe is being conducted into the Jefferson Parish administration at the time of its awarding. The Parish President, Henry Broussard, has already pleaded guilty to unrelated corruption charges. It seems only a matter of time before investigators close in on River Birch proper.
The landfill business can be dirty in more ways than one. But there’s no excuse for corruption, and trying to circumvent the political process is no substitute for approaching it fairly and honestly.