NEW ORLEANS — The owners of a suburban New Orleans landfill have reemerged as two of Louisiana's top political donors, even as a lawsuit moves forward claiming that some of their earlier political contributions were tantamount to bribes.
The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reports Jim Ward and Fred Heebe, owners of the River Birch landfill in Waggaman, are among the largest financial backers of reelecting Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Companies controlled by the men have donated to a political action committee that's given at least $200,000 to Gumbo PAC, a political action committee that could play a crucial role in Edwards' reelection bid.
Their past donations were scrutinized in a four-year federal criminal probe that eventually fell apart without charges being filed. However, a lawsuit concerning those same issues has returned to life in recent months and could come to trial.
The 2011 racketeering lawsuit accuses River Birch's owners of improper jockeying over where post-Katrina refuse would be dumped. Garbage giant Waste Management alleges that River Birch's owners received favorable treatment in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish by bribing each government's chief executive: Mayor Ray Nagin and Parish President Aaron Broussard.
Waste Management claims that Nagin shuttered its landfill as payback for the $20,000 in campaign cash from Heebe and Ward in 2006.
Nagin and Broussard went to prison on unrelated corruption charges.
The allegations involving Jefferson Parish and its landfill have been settled. But the New Orleans allegations —possibly worth more than $180 million to Waste Management — received new life last year from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The now-defunct federal criminal probe into Ward and Heebe had looked into the pair's use of shell companies to bundle donations. While a person can give a politician no more than $5,000 per election cycle, each corporation may give $5,000 as well. However, it's illegal to set up companies to circumvent campaign finance laws.
More recently, New Horizons USA PAC, formed by longtime River Birch Chief Financial Officer Dominick Fazzio, has donated at least $200,000 to Gumbo PAC. That tied New Horizons for the title of largest in-state donor to Gumbo since Edwards took office.
New Horizons is funded primarily by two companies owned and operated by Heebe and Ward: River Birch and Willow LLC. Since Edwards' election in 2015, River Birch has funneled at least $150,000 into New Horizons, and Willow has contributed $100,000.
A pending state ethics lawsuit alleges Heebe and Ward violated that law when they bundled $20,000 in contributions to former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin through four sham companies in 2006.
Four years after those donations were made, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United changed the law, and four years later still, a judge invalidated a Louisiana law capping super PAC contributions. Those rulings let groups like New Horizons raise and spend unlimited sums as long as they don't coordinate directly with any candidate's campaign.
That's why Heebe and Ward, through the PAC, could send $200,000 to Gumbo PAC.
Ward, whose only personal donation was to Edwards last year, said he thinks the governor has done a good job. He said his stepson Heebe manages the political side of the business.
Heebe didn't return calls seeking comment.
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