JEFFERSON, La. -- Even though the feds have pulled the plug on their investigation of Fred Heebe and his River Birch landfill, a handful of civil complaints still allege that River Birch and its affiliates made improper payments to influence local leaders.
And now Eyewitness News has uncovered a payment that made its way from River Birch to a Jefferson Parish councilman, an official who later voted to give River Birch an exclusive contract with the parish.
Former Councilman Byron Lee already faces several questions about whether he illegally used his public office to benefit family members. That’s why we followed the money when we got a hold of a $250,000 check River Birch paid Debris Management LLC in October 2005.
Debris Management was formed by Byron Lee’s brother-in-law, Eric Thompson, just three weeks before the check came from River Birch. And two months later, bank records show that the newly formed Debris Management account was used to pay $46,000 to Hometown Investment Group, a company Thompson and Lee owned together.
River Birch executive Dominick Fazzio, companies he owned and members of Heebe’s family also combined to contribute nearly $20,000 to Lee’s political campaigns between 2006 and 2009.
And in 2009, Lee voted to close the parish dump for 25 years and award River Birch a $160 million deal to get all of the parish’s trash.
Lee left the council in January 2012 and has never been charged with a crime, but two separate state audits last year said Lee may have broken the law by voting to send public money to nonprofits that employ his direct family members.
Lee did not respond to several messages left for him over the past week.
Ethics expert Beth Alston said the trail of payments from River Birch to Debris Management to Hometown Investment Group suggests “undue influence by River Birch to Byron Lee.” Even though the statute of limitations has expired and Lee is out of office, Alston said Jefferson Parish voters should be concerned.
“It does concern me and I think it would concern the citizens of Jefferson Parish as well,” she said.
We had questions about what Debris Management had done to deserve the quarter-million because the company wasn’t even registered with the Secretary of State until March 30, 2006, more than five months after the check was cashed.
So we confronted Eric Thompson at the office of another company he owns, Le’Nouveau Construction -- which, now that the parish has canceled its contract with River Birch, has a $236,000-a-year subcontract to control nuisance birds and stench at the parish dump in Waggaman.
“What Debris Management did?” Thompson said while trying to shoo us away. “Oh, it was my birthday and he gave me some money. I gotta go, dude. I’m serious.”
According to Thompson, federal agents had questions too -- at least before the Justice Department halted the Heebe probe amid the U.S. Attorney’s Office online commenting scandal and “evidentiary concerns.”
“Just go to the feds,” Thompson said. “They can answer all your questions, I promise you. Everything you have there, they have the same thing and they can answer all your questions.”
Of course, the feds won’t talk about the case, other than to say it was dropped. It was at the center of the online commenting scandal that is now the subject of an investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibity, and that office has denied WWL’s requests for records. The station is appealing that denial.
Kyle Schonekas, an attorney for Heebe, also declined to comment or explain why the $250,000 went to Debris Management.
In addition, there appeared to be inconsistencies with Debris Management’s organization papers. They are dated September 21, 2005, but weren’t recorded with the state until March 30, 2006. Thompson and Lolita Willis of Los Angeles are listed as officers, but a few months later, Willis removed herself as an officer in the company and her signature looks nothing like the one on the original papers.
Reached by phone in Los Angeles, Willis declined to comment. And Thompson’s attorney, Clarence Roby Jr., also wouldn’t comment on the issue of Willis’ signatures.
The civil claims against Heebe and River Birch are extensive. Three competitors, Waste Management of Louisiana, Concrete Busters and AMID/Metro Partnership, have separate civil racketeering claims against River Birch in federal court, alleging the company and Heebe conspired with elected officials to corner the local landfill market.
Those cases were all delayed during the criminal probe, but now that that’s over, it appears they can proceed.
Also delayed was a lawsuit filed last year by the state Ethics Board against River Birch, River Birch executive Dominick Fazzio and several companies connected to Fazzio. The lawsuit focuses on campaign donations made by alleged “straw man entities” to various unnamed public officials in an attempt to influence them.
The Fazzio- and Heebe-related contributions to Lee’s campaigns all came more than three years before the ethics lawsuit was filed, meaning they are too old to be included in those specific alleged violations.
But the ethics complaint does mention that dozens of similar payments were made to officials before 2009. And one of the civil racketeering lawsuits, filed by Concrete Busters, alleges that Lee was among a small group of politicians who received contributions from Fazzio’s “straw man” companies.
The ethics lawsuit is scheduled for a hearing in July. River Birch’s civil attorney, Thomas Flanagan, declined to comment on the various cases pending against the company.
The allegations of influence-peddling by River Birch extended into New Orleans and beyond government officials. While fighting efforts to re-open the Old Gentilly Landfill after Katrina, Heebe used one of the Fazzio companies to pay WWL Radio host Garland Robinette $250,000 in 2007. The payment came after Robinette used his popular talk show to repeatedly criticize the proposed re-opening of Gentilly.
When the payment came to light in 2011, Robinette’s lawyer said it had been a loan and acknowledged that federal agents had questioned the media personality about it. But he said it had nothing to do with Robinette’s stance against the competing landfill. But the loan wasn’t officially paid off until a month ago when some Northshore property transferred from Robinette’s wife’s company to River Birch.