By Bridget Huber, FairWarning
Chemicals used to treat drinking water for millions of Americans may raise the risk of cancer and lead to other unintended health hazards, according to a report released today by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization.
The group is urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reevaluate its standards for the byproducts created when water is disinfected. The Environmental Working Group also is pushing officials to clean up sources of public drinking water to reduce the need for chemical treatment in the first place. (more…)
By Ronnie Greene, iWatch News by The Center for Public Integrity
Haitian farm workers pick beans on a farm in Homestead in 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Laboring in the blackberry fields of central Arkansas, the 18-year-old Mexican immigrant suddenly turned ill. Her nose began to bleed, her skin developed a rash, and she vomited.
The doctor told her it was most likely flu or bacterial infection, but farmworker Tania Banda-Rodriguez suspected pesticides. Under federal law, growers must promptly report the chemicals they spray. (more…)
By Tom Lassiter and Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
After years of delay, Broward officials are finally poised to tackle the hazard posed by hundreds of tons of lead that’s been accumulating at the Markham Park Target Range since it opened in the 1980s.
The gunfire has continued there at a fast and furious pace as the county dithered about what to do. But on May 22, the County Commission will consider proposals from five companies for cleaning up what county officials long have known was a festering, environmental mess posed by lead shot and clay targets in a small lake and an adjacent wooded area.
County staff reviewed and ranked the proposals in February. If the commission approves, county staff will begin negotiations with the top ranked firm, MT2 of Arvada, CO.
Clean-up work at the target range, on the edge of the Everglades off State Road 84 in Sunrise, could begin sometime this fall and take several months to complete.
“We think by doing this project, we will eliminate any (environmental) concerns,” said Dan West, director of Broward County Parks and Recreation since January 2010.
West said the county has found no evidence lead has moved into the underground water supply or adjacent wetlands, the primary environmental concern.
“We are routinely conducting tests on the surface water and the adjacent canals and there has been no evidence that the lead is migrating off site,” he said.
TOXIC LEAD IN GROUNDWATER?
In 2009, however, two independent experts told The Miami Herald that monitoring at the site was inadequate to accurately assess whether lead was leaching into groundwater.
Dr. Christopher Teaf, project director for the Center for Biomedical and Toxicological Research at Florida State University, said then that there was “plenty of evidence” that lead had migrated off-site at Markham Park. On Wednesday, he said he’s seen nothing since to change his opinion.
High concentrations of lead can cause brain and nerve damage in humans. Fish and birds can be similarly poisoned. At least two former workers at the target range have blamed health problems on years of lead exposure.
Commissioner Ilene Lieberman, whose district includes the park, said the clean up is now high priority. “It’s been a long time in the process,” she said.
County officials have been talking about a clean up for more than two decades. In 1991, the Sun-Sentinelreported that a county study had found lead contamination at the range, which was then attracting 60,000 target shooters a year.
Markham Park Target Range
In 1998, another county study found that the bottom of six-acre Shotgun Lake had a 350-ton layer of splintered clay targets five feet thick.
Limited clean up has been done at the rifle range, where spent slugs are removed and recycled from an earthen backstop every five to eight years. The county also installed a liner to prevent lead from polluting storm runoff.
In 2004, Florida lawmakers exempted gun range operators from local oversight. In response to concerns that the high cost of clean ups could interfere with gun rights. Instead, ranges were supposed to follow “environmental stewardship guidelines.”
The guidelines, issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection, emphasized, “The one thing you can do immediately is to stop firing over and into surface water or wetlands.”
But that didn’t happen at Markham Park.
In 2009, officials talked about taking action, but the idea died in a severe budget squeeze.
COUNTY FINALLY TAKES ACTION
Last June, with Commissioner Kristin Jacobs absent, the commission voted 8-0 to seek cleanup proposals.
MT2′s plan came in at $2.7 million, West said. But that figure will be reduced by a credit to the county based on how much the company gets recycling and selling the lead. That could amount to $700,000 to $750,000, according to the company’s proposal.
”We got (proposals from) very reputable firms, and the number one ranked firm has done over 600″ similar clean ups, West said.
The other four companies didn’t submit specific costs, but did, as required, commit to completing the project within the county’s $2.2 million budget, which includes a later phase involving wetland mitigation.
Much of the upfront cost will be paid with revenue from the $1 lead remediation fee charged each shooter on top of the regular shooting fee. The county has about $865,000 in the lead reclamation reserve fund that will go toward the clean up, West said. The balance will be covered by future fees, he said.
The project calls for the removal of lead and clay target fragments from the Shotgun Lake and from five acres of wooded area directly north of the skeet and trap range. Non-native melaleuca trees in the area also will be removed, county officials have said.
MT2′s proposal disturbingly indicates that it expects to find hazardous levels of “leachable lead” in both lake sediment and “shot fall zone soils” that could impact surface and groundwater.
The work can be scheduled to assure shooters have access to the range at least eight hours a day and on weekends for most of the project, according to the firm’s proposal.
In the first phase, MT2 will remove all the vegetation and excavate and process the surface soil to remove lead from the soil down six inches or a foot depending on conditions.
The firm will then drain and excavate the lake, process sediment to remove lead, and fill the hole with new soil. During that phase, shooting might be restricted to weekends only for a period of one to two weeks, according to the proposed plan.
The entire project area will then be graded and covered with sod.
To entice commissioners to choose them, the firm also offered to assess additional areas impacted by lead shot that are outside of the immediate project area and to help the county develop an Environmental Stewardship Plan for the range.
By Myron Levin, Lilly Fowler and Stuart Silverstein, Fair Warning
The stump of one of more than 2,000 trees allegedly cut by a billboard company in North Florida. A grand jury said the state wrongly issued cutting permits.
Robert J. Barnhart was a crew chief for a billboard company, and a soldier in a war on trees.
Trees were the enemy if they spoiled the view of a billboard. On days of an attack, Barnhart, 27, would arrive by dawn at Lamar Advertising Co. in Tallahassee, Fla. After removing the magnetic Lamar logo from a company truck, he would set forth with a machete, a hospital mask and a container of what he described as a “pretty gnarly” herbicide.
It was all about being fast: Hack into the roots or base of the tree, douse the wound with herbicide, and get out of there. The Lamar executive who gave the orders, said Barnhart, called it “a hit and run.”
Barnhart’s account, detailed in court papers and in statements to investigators, is the focus of a criminal investigation. It also is the basis for a whistleblower suit in which Barnhart, who through his lawyer declined to be interviewed, maintains that he was fired because he would not keep poisoning trees. His claims are supported by sworn testimony from Barnhart’s former supervisor, Chris Oaks, who admitted that he, too, had illegally poisoned trees before Barnhart took over in 2009 as poisoner-in-chief.
As long as there have been billboards, trees have been getting in the way. And billboard companies have been removing them—sometimes legally, sometimes not. News archives are replete with accounts of mysterious tree disappearances near billboard sites. Usually, no one gets caught, due to lack of evidence or to officials failing to aggressively pursue those responsible.
Fewer trees means more viewing time for motorists, and more money for billboard operators. A 500- foot clearance in front of a sign creates more than five seconds of viewing time for a motorist going 60 mph.
It’s uncertain if the Tallahassee tree-poisonings were isolated, or reflect a pattern at Lamar. The Baton Rouge, La.-based company has nearly 150,000 billboards, more than any other U.S. outdoor advertising firm.
Barnhart and Oaks said they acted under orders from Lamar’s former regional manager, Myron A. “Chip” LaBorde, who ran company operations in Florida and Georgia and was past president of the Florida Outdoor Advertising Association LaBorde died of pancreatic cancer last summer.
Hal Kilshaw, a Lamar vice president and chief spokesman, declined to discuss the criminal investigation, but said “cutting of trees or poisoning of trees without the required permits would be contrary to company policy.”
Robert Barnhart and his wife, Kimberly. Barnart claims he was fired by Lamar Advertising last year when he refused to continue poisoning trees
Charges in the tree-poisoning case could be filed soon. Meanwhile, another tree-killing binge in the Florida panhandle has also drawn attention. In that episode, billboard operator Bill Salter Outdoor Advertising cleared more than 2,000 trees from public rights of way to enhance views of its signs.
Florida transportation officials acted “in flagrant violation of the law” in issuing permits for the cutting, a grand jury found in January, because, among other things, they did not require Salter to compensate the state for the loss of the trees, valued at $1 million to $4 million. The permits were issued to Salter after a state legislator, Greg Evers, intervened by making calls to the state Department of Transportation. The agency is currently negotiating with Salter for repayment.
Tree pruning also happens routinely, and legally, by arrangement between billboard operators and private landowners. The industry has lobbied for state laws to allow tree cutting along public highways under certain conditions. According to the Outdoor Advertising Assn. of America, the industry trade group, 29 states, including Florida, have “reasonable” regulations on clearing vegetation that blocks views of signs. The group says on its website: “The OAAA discourages vegetation control that is not in compliance with state and local laws and regulations.”
However, environmental groups have criticized these laws, asking why publicly owned trees that provide beauty and shade should be removed to accommodate advertising signs. Though billboard companies pay for the cutting, critics say permit fees and compensation for destroyed trees do not meet the real cost to taxpayers. Moreover, they note, in states that permit vegetation removal, illegal cutting still takes place.
Lamar’s Kilshaw said his company’s record is good. “We have over 150 offices, we have thousands of employees, we’ve been in business over 100 years,” he said. The record shows Lamar is “doing the right thing almost all the time, almost everywhere.”
“An Honest, Legitimate Mistake”
In 2008, Lamar was sued by the state of Connecticut after the company and a tree service trespassed on state land and removed 83 trees along Interstate 84, including oak, spruce, maple and birch trees up to 37 inches in diameter. They “swept a swath of destruction,” said then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, “obliterating a vital environmental buffer protecting homeowners from noxious noise and views.”
The problem was that Lamar had a permit to trim—not cut down—trees. It also felled trees outside the permitted area.
It was “an honest, legitimate mistake,” Kilshaw said, adding that a state transportation official had observed the work without raising objections. But a judge found Lamar liable in October, 2010. In lieu of paying damages, Lamar agreed to fund a replanting program for an estimated $181,000.
In 2009, Lamar was forced to pay about $182,000 to an irate Ohio couple for illegally felling 34 trees on their property to improve views of a sign.
The dispute began in the late 1990s when, according to John Blust, he and his wife rebuffed Lamar’s offer to plant a sign on land they owned in the Dayton suburb of Beavercreek.
A neighbor proved more obliging, and the billboard went up there. But it turned out that the Blusts’ trees were in the way. They lived a few miles from the property, and did not learn of the destruction of their woodland until alerted by a cousin.
Blust told FairWarning that he sought compensation, and “If they had sent me $3,000, it would have been all over.” But a Lamar executive “laughed at me over the phone from Baton Rouge, Louisiana,” said Blust, who then decided to sue.
A jury awarded the Blusts more than $2.2 million in punitive damages. Appeals dragged the marathon case into 2009, when an appeals court ruling led to Lamar paying damages and attorney fees.
“In that case, our contractor made a mistake,” Kilshaw said, “and simply went across a property line, and we ultimately paid on that.”
For his part, Blust, 76, said he was “satisfied that I caused them pain. Did we make a lasting impression on the management of Lamar? If they’re still cutting down trees, I guess we didn’t.”
What is unusual about these episodes is that someone got caught. More often, over the years, the culprits remained unknown or were not aggressively pursued by authorities.
For example, a 1985 report by the General Accounting Office cited dozens of incidents in Georgia of illegal tree cutters acting with impunity, including a case in which about 500 trees were poisoned near three signs along interstate highways.
In Louisiana, said the GAO, “over 2,000 feet of vegetation and trees were cut and cleared to enhance the visibility of two signs. We counted over 900 stumps from destroyed trees at this site.”
In a 1996 deposition, a former billboard company tree trimmer testified that he had cut down and poisoned trees in the Los Angeles area for many years, usually without the owners’ consent. The former employee, Fred Jackson, worked until the late 1980s for two large billboard companies, Foster & Kleiser and Patrick Media, that eventually merged and were absorbed by Clear Channel Outdoor.
Jackson said he occasionally was confronted about what he was doing, and would make up a lie. It might be “‘I’m working for the Edison Company,’” Jackson testified. “That was a great one.”
More recently, illegal tree clearing near billboards and “supergraphics’’—giant ads draped on buildings—has been a problem in Southern California, said Dan Freeman, an official with the state Department of Transportation, or Caltrans.
“The billboard industry—well, my impression of them is they’re kind of lawless,” said Freeman, Caltrans’ deputy director of maintenance for Los Angeles and Ventura counties. “They pretty much do whatever they want.”
“We’ve been victim a number of times to people who come in the middle of the night, with a chainsaw, and just kind of clear cut the area immediately in front of one of these supergraphics or a large billboard,” Freeman told FairWarning.
“And, of course, we call them [the sign company], and they say, ‘We have no idea who could have done it. My, what a terrible thing.’ They don’t own up to it. We have had a very, very difficult time in getting traction on prosecuting them.”
The Right To Be Seen
Billboard companies have sometimes claimed an inherent right to have unimpaired views of their signs. If revenues go down because of public trees, they have argued, public agencies should pay damages. This has been a hard sell.
For example, a Tennessee appeals court rejected an industry lawsuit against the state department of transportation over its failure to maintain unrestricted views of roadside signs.
“It is true that wild vegetation, as well as that planted by the State, has and will have a normal tendency to grow taller,” said the 1979 ruling. “Plaintiffs seem to insist that the licensing of a billboard confers some special right of visibility or imposes some special duty upon the State to maintain visibility of the licensed billboard. No authority has been cited or found to sustain this novel theory.”
In 2006, the California Supreme Court rejected claims of billboard operator Regency Outdoor, which had sued the city of Los Angeles, claiming it lowered the value of its signs by planting palm trees for a beautification project.
“The right to be seen from a public way…simply does not exist,” the Supreme Court ruled. “Regency cannot claim unfair surprise from the plantings. Local governments have long planted trees along roads for aesthetic reasons, to lessen the burdens of climate, and for other salubrious purposes.”
So the industry has turned to state legislatures to establish the right to be seen. Under laws or regulations of most states, billboard operators can legally cut back trees and other vegetation along state and federal highways. Typically, they must pay for a permit, file a work plan, and either replant or pay for lost trees.
The Outdoor Advertising Assn. of America failed to respond to interview requests, but in an email described vegetation control as “a common, longstanding practice along roadways for the sake of safety and visibility.”
Once state rules are in place, billboard companies often lobby state legislatures to relax restrictions and expand the freedom to cut. In the past year, for example, the industry pushed through such changes in Georgia, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
In Georgia billboard companies won more freedom to clear trees, though the new law is tied up in a court challenge. The industry’s legislative success followed years of cultivating lawmakers. From 2001 through 2010, billboard owners and the Outdoor Advertising Association of Georgia contributed at least $467,522 to candidates for state office, according to a report by the advocacy group Scenic Georgia.
The Outdoor Advertising Association also did some wining and dining, last year hosting 34 Georgia legislators and two board members of the state Department of Transportation at a golf outing at the Reynolds Plantation resort, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
A Georgia Department of Transportation spokeswoman said that in the past five years, the agency has completed investigations into 20 complaints of illegal tree cutting, and collected about $203,000 in compensation.
In North Carolina, the industry-backed law passed last July expanded the cutting area to up to 380 feet on each side of billboards—up from 250 feet before. This translates into extra viewing time of 1.5 seconds for motorists approaching billboards at 60 mph. State transportation officials estimated that up to 200,000 trees could be removed in the next five years as a result.
From 2005 through June, 2011, billboard interests donated at least $206,000 to state legislative and gubernatorial candidates in North Carolina, according to a report by the nonprofit group Democracy North Carolina, and research by FairWarning.
“They’ve got a lot of money, and it’s amazing how cheaply legislators can be bought,” said North Carolina resident Charles Floyd, a retired University of Georgia business professor who has written extensively about the billboard industry and is critical of the new law.
Even in states like North Carolina that provide a legal means to enhance billboard views, incidents of illegal cutting and poisoning still occur. In some respects, loosening restrictions is the path of least resistance, reducing the number of violations and need for enforcement.
“If you legalize vandalism,’’ Floyd complained, “that helps out a lot.’’
Poisoned trees near North Carolina billboard site in 2006. Courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Since July, 2006, the North Carolina Department of Transportation recorded 88 incidents of illegal tree removal near billboards, according to agency data reviewed by FairWarning.
The cost to the state was $923,000 under a formula based on the size of lost trees. Of that amount, records show, the state was able to collect only about $39,000. Without admitting liability, Lamar paid $18,487.50 to settle one of the cases.
Criminal Probe in Florida
Soon after Barnhart filed his whistleblower suit in federal court in Tallahassee, he led state agriculture officials to an oak tree he claimed he had poisoned next to a CVS pharmacy in Tallahassee. When the lab results came back in October, they revealed a herbicide, Triclopyr, in soil and vegetation samples.
He told officials it was one of seven to 10 trees he had illegally poisoned since 2009. Sometimes, he said, he used a machete before pouring in the poison, other times drilled holes in a tree, and on still other occasions he simply cut them.
Barnhart has been granted immunity by Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs. Asked to comment on the criminal probe, Meggs said his office is continuing to gather information.
In a deposition taken in the whistleblower case, Chris Oaks, Barnhart’s supervisor, confirmed Barnhart’s account. Oaks admitted to poisoning trees himself under orders from his boss, LaBorde.
Oaks, 35, claimed he initially balked, saying he thought Lamar must first get permits.
“And he (LaBorde) told me, he said to just jump over the fence and do what needs to be done and kick a little dirt over it,” Oaks testified, “and if you don’t know how to do that, I’ll take out my gun and I’ll shoot you in the head.”
Oaks figured LaBorde was joking. But “I felt then that I needed to do what the man was telling me for fear—not for death, I didn’t really think he would kill me, but I did feel like it was threatening to my job,” Oaks said.
“I just want to get it clear that none of this was me,” Oaks said. “I did not want to do any of this.”
Barnhart said fear of getting caught on a surveillance camera and, according to his lawyer, pressure from his wife led him to come forward. Barnhart said that after suffering a back injury and going on light duty, he told managers that he would no longer poison trees when he came back. In August, he says, he was fired.
Lamar contends it never fired Barnhart. The company’s response is less clear cut on the other alleged violations, such as criminal mischief and illegal handling of poisons.
“Any act or omission by Lamar was done in good faith,” the company said in court papers. “To the extent that the actions of any Lamar employee were, in fact, in violation…, those actions directly violated Lamar’s corporate policies and procedures and were, thus, beyond the course and scope of their employment.”
FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org) is a nonprofit, online investigative news organization focused on safety and health issues.
Support for this story came from the Fund for Investigative Journalism (www.fij.org).
By Robert McClure, InvestigateWest
Photo: U.S. Geological Survey
When you think of pollution, you might picture an industrial center like Camden, N.J., or Jersey City. But new research shows that when it comes to a potent class of cancer-causing toxic chemicals, many American parking lots are a lot worse. (more…)
By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org
The smelly, greasy castaways stuffed in containers and put on the curb for collection is garbage to most of us. But to a handful of businesses it is gold.
So with the Broward County Commission taking the first tentative steps towards planning the future of waste disposal in the county, at stake is tens of millions of dollars annually.
“Waste is one of the biggest economic forces in Broward County. Nobody thinks of it as such,” said Ron Greenstein, executive director of the county’s Resource Recovery Board.
At the center of the debate is the Southwest Broward landfill, 588 acres east of U. S. 27 on Stirling Road that is not being fully used.
Some waste executives say they can offer cheaper rates if the landfill was reopened for greater use, offering competition to the disposal monopoly that Waste Management subsidiary Wheelabrator Technologies has held in Broward for more than 20 years.
But southwest Broward residents are vehemently opposed to any expanded use of the landfill.
“I will lay down in the street in front of the garbage trucks before I allow them to reopen that landfill,” vowed Pembroke Pines Commissioner Angelo Castillo.
Voices are being raised. Positions are hardening. In the middle are Broward County Commissioners who will decide the issue.
The commission has scheduled a workshop on Oct. 18 from 2-4 p.m. at the Broward Government Center in downtown Fort Lauderdale to discuss the future of waste disposal in the county.
On one side are a handful of city officials and garbage haulers who want to tap into Broward County’s $1 billion-plus waste stream. They say that developing a second landfill will lower prices by offering competition to Wheelabrator’s so-called Mount Trashmore in the north end of county along Florida’s Turnpike. Wheelabrator now has a monopoly on dumping in Broward.
On the other side are residents and politicians who represent them. They say that the traffic and smell of an expanded landfill will destroy the quality of life in Southwest Broward on the edge of the Everglades
“This is a classic NIMBY fight,” said Greenstein, using the abbreviation for the political term “Not In My Backyard”.
The outcome could affect residential and commercial garbage rates throughout the county because of the way trash bills are calculated.
A home owner or a business pays a single fee for two separate parts of garbage removal. A hauler picks up and delivers it to a disposal site. A disposal firm buries the waste in a landfill or burns it in an incinerator.
The current fight is about the second part – disposal. If the cost of disposal is lowered, every household and business will have a lower total garbage bill. And some say they can lower disposal costs by using the Southwest Regional Landfill to break Wheelabrator’s monopoly.
THE LANDFILL IS DECADES OLD
Opened in 1988 before large numbers of people lived in the area, the Southwest Regional Landfill was a busy facility that accepted household garbage from around the county. It was closed to household garbage three years later, but has continued to be used for dumping yard waste, construction and demolition debris, furniture, carpeting, paper, glass and plastic.
The disposal of household garbage was handed to Wheelabrator. The firm was given a 20-year, multi-billion dollar monopoly on disposing of household waste in much of Broward. Five cities opted out of the deal—Dania Beach, Hallandale, Pembroke Pines, Parkland and Pompano Beach.
The firm handles the garbage in two facilities: an incinerator just south of Interstate 595 on U. S. 441 and the North Broward landfill. The Resource Recovery Board, a group of city and county officials, was created to oversee the contract.
With the Wheelabrator contract expiring, Board Chairwoman Ilene Lieberman and other members last year tried to push through a no-bid, $1.5 billion long-term extension at lower rates. The county commission and cities balked.
Wheelabrator only got a 23-month extension of its monopoly through July 2013, allowing the county time to plan for the future.
Cash-strapped cities and private lobbyists representing businesses that want a cut of the millions generated by garbage are demanding a better deal be put in place when the latest Wheelabrator extension ends.
Other firms say they can dispose of garbage cheaper by using a combination of Wheelabrator facilities and sites in other counties. But they argue that prices would fall dramatically if they were allowed to use the Southwest Regional Landfill.
Residents of western Pembroke Pines and Southwest Ranches, however, say that opening up the landfill would put hundreds of garbage trucks and tractor trailers on the streets of their cities. The smell could blow into their neighborhoods and, as it rose in height would be unsightly. Runoff from toxic waste could leak into the Everglades, the source of our drinking water.
“This project would ruin the lifestyle and be a danger to thousands of our residents,” said Pembroke Pines Commissioner Iris Siple, who promised to help residents organize against the landfill.
Supporters of opening the landfill to household garbage say it is a $1 billion dollar-plus idle county asset that should be used to benefit residents by lowering garbage rates. They vow it won’t smell and will not be used until there are safeguards against leakage.
“Keeping it closed means one thing – a continued monopoly on waste disposal and higher rates for homeowners and businesses,” said one waste industry source who asked not to be named.
Miramar decided not to wait for the county to put together a new garbage plan. That city asked for bids to dispose of the 70,000 tons of garbage it generates annually. City Hall received a proposal from Wheelabrator that was $4.50 less than the firm’s offer to the county – a savings of $315,000-a-year.
Seeing the deal Miramar was offered, the 26 cities currently covered by the Wheelabrator contract are restive. There is talk about reducing the role of the Resource Recovery Board and letting each city negotiate its own disposal deal. County Commissioner John Rodstrom has said the board should be disbanded.
With such enormous sums of money up for grabs, lobbyists are in a feeding frenzy.
The most politically potent competitor to Wheelabrator is a joint venture between entrepreneur Ron Bergeron and Southern Waste Systems of Palm Beach County. Bergeron and SWS have a team of lobbyists including longtime Bergeron General Counsel Aleida “Ali” Waldman, former County Commissioner George Platt and Democratic insider Bernie Friedman. Bergeron and his sons — big campaign contributors to elected officials who will decide the issue — also are involved.
Wheelabrator is represented by long-time Broward Government Center fixtures Bill Laystrom and Dennis Mele, among others. They are frequent campaign contributors, too, along with Wheelabrator and its parent company, Waste Management.
It is against this backdrop that the county workshop on the future of waste disposal is being held.
Lieberman, who is widely viewed as favoring a new deal with Wheelabrator, tried to confine participation at the workshop to members and staff of the Resource Recovery Board favorable to her views like director Ron Greenstein.
“Ilene and Ron (Greenstein) want a deal with Wheelabrator preferably without bidding,” said County Mayor Suzanne Gunzburger.
Commissioner Barbara Sharief, whose district includes southwest Broward, insisted Miramar be included.
“They led the charge in getting a lower rate and I thought it would be helpful to have them there,” Sharief said.
Said Gunzberger, “This is all up in the air. Everything is on the table.”
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
SFWMD Executive Director Melissa L. Meeker
South Florida Water Management District will reconsider its policies on influence-peddling after news reports about how it does not follow state laws on insider dealing and requiring lobbyists to register.
Two Broward Bulldog reports this year pointed to how loopholes in the law allowed lobbyists at the district to avoid any public disclosure and let a former district board chairman sidestep state conflict-of-interest rules.
“The general counsel will be asked to review the agency’s current policies and procedures related to lobbying and post-employment restrictions and to make recommendations for revisions, if necessary,” said Melissa L. Meeker, the district’s new executive director.
The district, which levies property taxes in Broward and 15 other South Florida counties, spends tens of millions of dollars in public funds every year and is charged with protecting drainage and drinking water.
The district’s nine-member governing board hired Meeker in May after the abrupt departure of former district boss Carole Wehle following a wave of embarrassing news articles about waste and alleged favoritism.
Any policy changes would be decided by the board.
As Broward Bulldog reported in April, lobbyists at the district skirt state disclosure laws that require lobbyists before state agencies to register and disclose who they are working for and how much they are being paid. None of Florida’s five regional water management districts require lobbyists to register.
Broward Bulldog also reported in June how a loophole quietly inserted into Water District’s rules more than a decade ago has undermined another state law that bars appointed state officers and others from returning to lobby their former agency for two years after leaving office.
Meeker’s statement in an email to Broward Bulldog was in response to recent questions about her thoughts on the district’s lobbying practices and whether she would seek change.
Meeker did not say whether she favors or opposes registration. She did, however, reiterate the district’s previous position that, as an independent taxing authority, it does not have the statutory authority to require lobbyists to register.
In a July 29 email, Meeker also sought to justify the district’s no-registration stance stating, “Other state agencies such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Transportation also do not require lobbyists to register.”
State law, however, says that all lobbyists seeking to influence “any department, division, bureau, board, commission or authority of the executive branch” must register and make disclosure before they can begin lobbying.
New district General Counsel Carolyn S. Ansay, who started Aug. 1, will conduct the review of the district’s lobbying policies. No timetable was set for completion.
Ansay, who joined the district after 14 years as a private practice lawyer specializing in water, environmental, land use and local government law, succeeds longtime counsel Sheryl Wood.
Wood took a buyout on July 1 and now works as the $180,000-a-year general counsel to the Palm Beach School Board.
Besides the registration issue, Ansay will review the district’s restrictions on post-employment lobbying.
Florida law prevents appointed state officers like members of the district’s governing board from returning to lobby for two years after their departure. The idea is to prevent them from cashing in at the public’s expense on their inside knowledge and personal influence with ex-colleagues.
But 15 years ago, the district watered down the state’s flat two-year prohibition by adding language to its rules. The extra language narrowed the application of the ban to persons who represent clients in matters in which they “participated personally and substantially” while in office.
Former Water District board chairman Nicolas Gutierrez, a three-time appointee of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, told Broward Bulldog he relied on that language when he returned seven times to the district to lobby its purchasing director and others within two years of his departure from the board in April 2008.
“Obviously this benefited me,” Gutierrez said. “But this is the way things have evolved.”
Critics, including Nova Southeastern University law professor Robert Jarvis and Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, have said the district’s lobbying rules are troubling and need to be changed.
“The district’s rules make it too easy for influence-peddling by former board members,” Jarvis said.
Draper called on the Legislature to “set statewide [lobbying] rules for all taxing districts.”
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
When it comes to lobbying, the rules are different at the South Florida Water Management District.
A loophole written into the Water District rules has opened a revolving door of influence that at least one former governing board member-turned-lobbyist has used to sidestep state conflict-of-interest rules.
Florida law bars appointed state officers and others from returning to lobby their former agency for two years after leaving office. The idea is to prevent them from cashing in at the public’s expense on their inside knowledge and personal influence with ex-colleagues.
Former chairman Nicolas Gutierrez, a three-time appointee of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, left the board in April 2008. But district visitor logs obtained by Broward Bulldog show that during the next two years Gutierrez returned to district headquarters seven times on behalf of a trio of clients to meet privately with key staff, including the purchasing director.
In an interview, Gutierrez said his lobbying work during the two-year period complied fully with the district’s “post-employment restrictions,” which also apply to former top managers.
“Obviously this benefited me,” said Gutierrez, a former district chairman. “But this is the way things have evolved.”
Gutierrez added that the difference between state law and the district’s policy was not significant. “I forget whose quote it was – something about ‘consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’”
CHANGING THE RULES
The district watered down the state’s flat two-year prohibition 15 years ago by adding a few words to the rules it adopted to implement it. The extra language applies the ban only to persons who represent clients in matters in which they “participated personally and substantially” while in office. (Gutierrez said he had no prior involvement in the matters he lobbied on during that time.)
Another change by the district gave unconditional authority to the Water District’s executive director to waive the district’s two-year rule. To date, the district said, no waivers have been issued.
District General Counsel Sheryl Wood declined to be interviewed. In response to written questions, her office stated that the district modified the state’s stricter ban “to provide consistency” with the state ethics code, the Florida Administrative Code, the rules governing engineers and the Florida Bar’s Rules of Professional Responsibility.
Robert Jarvis, a professor of constitutional law at Nova Southeastern University, called the district’s actions “very troubling” and said the district should “amend its rules to conform to the state law.”
“The district’s current rules make it too easy for influence-peddling by former board members,” Jarvis said. “There’s simply no justification for its departure from state law, and there’s clearly no benefit to the public, and a lot of potential harm…The only people who benefit from the district’s looser rules are the former board members and their clients.”
Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper said the “rules are wrong and should be changed.” He called on the Legislature to “set statewide [lobbying] rules for all taxing districts.”
“The agency that manages our water resources and referees use of a limited resource must be held to the highest standard of trust and confidence,” Draper said Wednesday.
The Water District is a regional agency governed by a board of nine political appointees tapped by the governor and confirmed by the Florida Senate. It oversees water resources in 16 counties including Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach. About a third of its $1.5 billion annual budget comes from property taxes it levies.
In April, Broward Bulldog reported how for years the district has used a loophole in state law to avoid requiring lobbyists to register and disclose who hired them, which officials they seek to influence and how much they are being paid.
Wood, the district’s lawyer, said then that the state’s strict lobby law does not apply to Florida’s five water districts because they are independent taxing districts – not executive branch agencies.
Dozens of special corporate interests, including developers and agricultural interests like Big Sugar, vie for influence at the district. The West Palm Beach-based agency was recently criticized by a Miami federal judge for failing for years to enforce clean water standards in the Everglades.
Gutierrez, a Coral Gables attorney, said his lobbying duty for clients during the two-year period was relatively minor work that met with both success and failure:
- He helped the Camay Cattle Company, which owned two pieces of property divided by district land, secure a permit allowing it access to the district’s land to avoid transporting horses on a highway.
- He lost a bid to get the district to renew a fish farm lease for Blue Heron Farms. The company later went out of business, he said.
- The Homestead-based landscaping and environmental services firm Arazoza Brothers hired Gutierrez to help them learn about bidding opportunities and make business connections at the district. Among other things, Gutierrez said, he introduced Arazoza officials to then-district procurement director Frank Hayden. The visitor log shows the meeting was Feb. 2, 2010.
Persons who violate the state’s two-year ban on lobbying their former agencies face penalties that include public censure, a $10,000 civil penalty and the forfeiture of client fees.
The district’s lone sanction for those who violate its less strict two-year rule is to bar them from representing future clients there, according to the general counsel’s office.
That’s never happened.
The office said no violations are known to have occurred since the rule was adopted, and none have been alleged.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
A flood control structure on Lake Okeechobee where pumps failed
The cash-strapped South Florida Water Management District spent $1.5 million in 2006 to buy 15 large electric pumps from a politically connected Hollywood company.
But the Morrison Pump Company’s pumps quickly failed after their installation in April 2007.
Morrison later refused the district’s request to honor its five-year pump warranty – asserting it was void because the pumps were misused, according to Water District documents obtained under the Public Records Act.
The pumps were needed to draw water from Lake Okeechobee in case of a drought, and the district ultimately was forced to seek new bids. It purchased 14 replacement pumps from a different supplier for an additional $1.85 million.
Stuck with $1.5 million in worthless equipment, unhappy district staff fired off what’s known as a “cure notice” to Morrison President Luis Botero in May 2008. It warned that if the company did not honor the warranty on its 42-inch axial flow pumps within 30 days it would “pursue all legal remedies available,” plus take steps to suspend Morrison as a vendor.
But the district’s threats proved hollow. For nearly three years, until Broward Bulldog inquired about the failed pumps in February, the district took no steps to either recover its money or suspend Morrison.
“Why? That’s a good question,” said Morrison’s lawyer, former Water District chairman Nicolas Gutierrez.
More work flows to contractor
Instead of going after Morrison, the district allowed it to continue to supply expensive pumps for the district’s important water moving projects.
Morrison is currently a subcontractor on an $11.9 million pump station being built off U.S. 27 as part of the district’s enormous Everglades restoration program.
The cost of the pumps, which have yet to be delivered, is approximately $2 million, said district spokesman Randy Smith.
Morrison spokesman and sales manager Michael Murazzi said his company’s pumps for the G-435 pumping station were inspected and approved for installation by district engineers.
“We asked them, ‘Do you guys still have a problem with us from the other issue?’” said Murazzi. “They said, ‘No problem. Let’s forget about the past. They’ve been very happy with us.”
Murazzi said others at the district have sought to wrongly blame Morrison for their mistakes. “Whatever their internal problems were, we were the fall guy,” he said.
Water District officials did not respond to questions about why they did not seek to recover the $1.5 million that was lost on the failed pumps. But Smith offered a different take on why the district continues to buy Morrison products.
“At the time that the (Everglades) contract was awarded the district had not completed its investigation into the failure of the Lake Okeechobee forward pumps. Therefore, the district did not have a sufficient basis to prevent (contractor) Close Construction from utilizing Morrison pumps,” he said.
That contract was awarded in August 2009. The existence of the investigation was not mentioned in hundreds of pages of project records reviewed by Broward Bulldog.
The district would not answer questions about the investigation, or explain the reason Morrison’s Lake Okeechobee pumps failed in 2007. A district lawyer denied a public records request for a copy of the report saying it was prepared in anticipation of litigation and was “exempt from public disclosure until the litigation is concluded or settled,” Smith said.
The district’s renewed talk of action stems from a “termination for default” notice it sent last month to Morrison. The March 14 letter formally notified Morrison that it had “failed to cure” its warranty breach for the Lake Okeechobee pumps that failed three years ago and warned again of a possible suspension.
A meeting between the two sides is scheduled today (April 7) at the district’s headquarters in West Palm Beach.
The South Florida Water Management District is a regional governmental agency with an unelected board and a $1.5 billion budget that oversees water resources in 16 counties from Orlando to the Florida Keys. About a third of its revenue comes from property taxes it levies.
News of the district’s lack of aggression in collecting money owed to it comes at a bad time.
Gov. Rick Scott and leaders in the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature are looking to slash the district’s budget by as much as $120 million next year as part of a larger effort to rein in government spending at each of Florida’s five water management districts.
Also, The Palm Beach Post reported last month that the district recently hired district Executive Director Carol Wehle’s boyfriend for a $120,000-a-year job in an internal watchdog office.
Morrison Pump had a significant inside political connection at the district when it was awarded the $1.5 million contract in 2006. The company’s lawyer, Nicolas Gutierrez, was then vice chairman of the district’s nine-member governing board. He served on the board from 1999 until April 2008.
Morrison, a wholly owned subsidiary of Morrison Manufacturing of Panama, was awarded the Lake Okeechobee contract five years ago after submitting the lowest sealed bid – $720,000 less than its nearest competitor, Moving Water Industries (MWI) of Deerfield Beach. After Morrison’s pumps failed, and another round of bids, MWI supplied the replacement pumps that are now in place.
Gutierrez said that while Morrison was – and is – a paying client he had “no involvement” in its 2006 efforts to win the pump contract – either by representing Morrison at the district or as an influential member of the district’s governing board.
In fact, the contract never went before the board for a vote. Gutierrez said that at the time the $1.5 million purchase was not large enough to require board approval. It is now.
Nevertheless, Gutierrez was hit with an ethics complaint shortly after leaving the board. The complaint alleged that his representation of two corporate clients doing business with the district, including Morrison, created recurring conflicts that “impeded the full and faithful discharge of his public duties.”
In December 2008, the Florida ethics commission found probable cause to believe the allegation was true regarding Morrison, but not the other company, Subaqueous Services Inc.
Specifically, it found that Gutierrez had failed to comply with state law requirements that he file disclosure forms declaring his interest in Morrison’s 2006 pump contract bid.
But the commission, saying “the public interest would not be served,” chose not to proceed further against Gutierrez. It explained that Gutierrez had not participated in Morrison’s selection and that if he filed the forms he could have availed himself of a legal exemption that would have negated the conflict. It also said Gutierrez “was not aware of the filing requirement.”
Battle for business
The backdrop to the district’s big money pump purchases is a pitched competition for work between Morrison and MWI, a longtime district vendor with political connections of its own. MWI’s principal owner, J. David Eller, has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party and was once a business partner of former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Gutierrez, appointed to the district by Bush, refers to MWI as the district’s “quintessential good old boy vendor.” He blames “all the issues we’ve had with the district over the years” on MWI mischief.
An MWI spokesman said the company had no comment.
After losing the initial bid to sell its pumps to the district in 2006, Eller’s son, MWI vice president Dana Eller, sent a complaint letter to executive director Wehle. He accused the district of secretly helping Morrison keep its bid price down by waiving “virtually every provision” listed in the project’s engineering specifications.
“There appears to be many non-disclosed exceptions being taken or allowed in their submittal that, had these exceptions been advertised beforehand, would have resulted in a more transparent bidding process, more qualified bidders, and ultimately lower prices for SWFMD,” Eller wrote.
Wehle later replied that any deviation from the bid specs complied with proper procedures and “in no way impairs the integrity of the procurement process.”
Morrison’s pumps failed less than a year later for reasons the district has so far refused to publicly explain.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Charles T. Wells
Retiring Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Wells knew he faced a conflict of interest in his relationship with his future employer at Orlando’s GrayRobinson when he disqualified himself from cases involving the law firm on Dec. 30, 2008.
But that did not stop him 30 days later from participating in a ruling that, in effect, backed a statewide political fight led by prominent members of his soon-to-be employer.
The group that lost the ruling – Florida Hometown Democracy – now wonders if Justice Wells’ vote was unduly influenced by his employment opportunity at GrayRobinson.
“It doesn’t smell good,” said Palm Beach environmental attorney Lesley Blackner, Florida Hometown Democracy’s president. “When I found out he was going to work for GrayRobinson it seemed like there was a high potential for conflicts of interest.” (more…)