A quick note on this series:
Slabbed is the end result an internet community sharing a wealth of information. This post and others in the upcoming series were made possible by the efforts of two people, primarily BayRat4Life and secondarily a reader that we’ll call Alex Trebek who gave us the answer which, in turn, helped us define the question, “Why did the Jefferson Parish Council install Steve Theriot as interim Parish President.” This series of posts deals with the history of River Birch Landfill, as we highlight the various players involved in securing the exclusive arrangement it now enjoys with the Parish. We begin today in the middle of the River Birch timeline back in 1995.
1995 was the pivotal year for River Birch Inc, a company founded in 1968 by Albert
“Butch” “Jim” Ward. 1995 would also mark a turning point for the company in its quest to become a permitted landfill as Mr Ward cut a deal that would bring new ownership to the company. So we begin at the end of 1995 and set the stage for 1996 as I quote from the narrative of an opinion which ultimately resulted from a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Michelle Finnegan:
On December 18. 1995, the permit application was deemed technically complete by the Solid Waste Division. On January 8, 1996, the then Secretary of the Department, William A. Kucharski, rendered a decision denying River Birch’s permit application. On or about January 16, 1996, River Birch Inc. filed a request with the Department to rescind secretary Kurcharski’s permit denial, and in the alternative, requested an adjudicatory hearing on the permit denial. On or about February 13, 1996, River Birch’s adjudicatory hearing request was granted and an adjudicatory hearing was held on June 10, 1996 through June 14, 1996. The hearing was recessed and then reconvened on June 25, 1996 through June 27, 1996. The hearing was conducted by Administrative Law judge Michelle Finnegan. On September 30. 1996, I issued an order recalling and rescinding former Secretary Kurcharski’s permit denial. Judge Finnegan did not render any decision or recommendations in this matter.
Then the writer of this “written reasons, findings and conclusions”, J Dale Givens bottom lines it:
Upon a thorough review of the record submitted, which includes the transcripts of the public hearing and the adjudicatory hearing, all exhibits, and the public. comments received during the public comment periods, I have reached the following determinations. I believe that Secretary Kurcharski’s decision to deny River Birch a solid waste landfill permit was erroneously reached for failure to consider the need for this proposed facility.
If you can ‘t fight city hall then, on the surface, it certainly is very difficult to fight the State DEQ but Butch Ward had finally gotten his state permit. One wonders how much this good result for River Birch came from a fight Mr Ward fought much earlier in 1995, with the legislature and in particular House Speaker John Alario. Just like a good game of Jeopardy now that we have the answer “Why Steve Theriot and why so quickly” we need the question so enter Bayrat with his contribution, River Birch Inc. v Robin & Associates, Inc et al, a case that was resolved in June 2005, just months before Katrina hit:
The facts in this case are indisputable; the contract at issue is contained in the record and provides the best evidence regarding the terms and conditions contained therein. Additionally, all communications had in connection with the contract were recorded and transcribed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and are part of the record. The salient issue before us is the enforceability of the contract entered into on June 1, 1995, between parties sophisticated in both business and politics: the appellant, River Birch, Incorporated (River Birch), and the appellee, DAR, Inc. d/b/a Robin & Associates (Robin). Pursuant to the contract, entitled “Governmental Public Relations Consulting Agreement,” River Birch, through its president, Albert J. Ward, Jr. (Ward) engaged the lobbying services of Dan A. Robin (Mr. Robin) for the purpose of defeating specific legislative bills, one of which was filed by House Speaker John Alario, that posed a threat to and, if passed, would prohibit the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality from issuing essential permits needed by River Birch to begin operations as a landfill business. The contract provided for a $50,000 fee payable to Robin by River Birch if the legislation was defeated (or amended so it would not apply to River Birch’s property) and an additional undivided 4% ownership interest in the landfill, contingent on whether River Birch received all the necessary permits and began operations.
With Robin’s involvement,-just days after the contract was signed, the bills were successfully defeated. River Birch began operating a landfill on July 1, 1999, is fully operational and is currently “making millions.” River Birch paid Robin the $50,000 fee but has refused to transfer the 4% undivided interest in River Birch to Robin. This litigation followed.
Bayrat was understandably very excited at this find as we finally found documentation of the much rumored outside ownership in the landfill. Even better for me is it fit the answer Alex, a long time political observer of Louisiana politics, had given me when Mr Theriot’s name surfaced a few times too many to escape our notice as we researched the unfolding corruption scandal when he said somethings along the lines of , “Sop if you going after Theriot then you are really going after John Alario. Theriot is his boy.” As Mr Ward would find out you can successfully fight the DEQ but not Good ol’ boy network as we continue:
Notwithstanding the undisputed facts and the clear terms and conditions of the contract, River Birch attacks the validity of the contract on three separate bases. First, it maintains the contract is null and void because Robin’s failure to report its lobbying relationship with River Birch as a client constitutes a violation of the Lobbying Act, in particular, La. R.S. 24:53. River Birch alternatively maintains that the contract is void for vices of consent: fraud, misrepresentation and/or duress. Thirdly, River Birch argues that the lobbying fee negotiated in the contract is so excessive as to “shock the conscience” and should be stricken as contra bonos mores.
In Louisiana the legislative leadership is chosen by the Governor as a practical matter and Speaker Alario was back on board as House Speaker in 1995 as he was a legislative favorite Edwin Edwards, then serving his last term as governor. While the topic of how a bill introduced by the House Speaker could be killed so easily is most deserving of further exploration, for purposes of this post I’ll concede there certainly is a heaping dose of plausible deniability in the record that shields Speaker Alario here. That said, from an investigative standpoint, the disclosure of that 4% ownership interest in River Birch that was the subject of this litigation is the holy grail as we skip to page 9 of the document to hear Mr Ward’s family history of River Birch:
River Birch is a Corporation whose president is Jim Ward. About 1968 it acquired a 600-acre tract of land, which was bisected by a railroad track, and he developed the northern half into a residential subdivision. Unable to obtain a railroad crossing to access the southern half, Ward abandoned his plans to construct residential housing there. Later, this objective was further hampered when Jefferson Parish constructed the Kelvin Landfill on the east side of his property, constructed a sewage sludge pit on the west side, and GNOL (Carlos Marcello) obtained a landfill on the south side of his property. In the 1980’s, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality began requiring landfills to comply with Subtitle D. These conditions were more stringent than previous one and required liners and collection systems. Ward was aware that neither GNOL nor the Kelvin Landfill would be able to comply with these new requirements, thus making a landfill on his property a better opportunity. There was some opposition to the landfill from various neighborhood groups and John Alario, the Speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives, and the representative from this area filed a bill during the 1995 regular session of the legislature to prevent the River Birch landfill from becoming operational (HB 1819).
The plot thickens considerably as we get a flavor of how Mr Ward was squeezed by the politicians and the mafia back in 1968. Certainly not anxious to see his sizable investment in the land put at risk he evidently made the call that solved it all by hiring Dan Robin a lobbyist “in Alario’s office” as we continue:
A subcontractor friend, Clement Boutpey, contacted him and told him the newspaper had reported on Alario’s filing of HB 1819. Boutpey suggested that Ward contact a friend of John Alario, Augie Grimaldi, for help. Grimaldi contacted him and told him to call Dan Robin in Alario’s office to get the problem resolved. Ward contacted Robin and met with him with him at Alario’s office in mid April. Robin agreed to work on behalf of River Birch in an attempt to defeat HB 1819. A contract was signed on June 1, 1995. The contract provided that Robin was to provide lobbying services for the defeat of HB 1819 (and companion Senate Bill 702), and River Birch would pay Robin $50,000. Additionally, if the legislation was defeated and River Birch received all the necessary permits so that they could construct and open the landfill, Robin would receive an additional 4% undivided interest in the landfill.
The legislation was defeated, the various permits were issued by the regulatory agencies and the landfill began operations on July 1, 1999. Ward paid the $50,000 to Robin, but never transferred any interest in the landfill to him.
Hindsight reveals two problems with the arrangement aside from the obvious. The first is that Robin never registered as a River Birch lobbyist which the court found that, “a straightforward application of the statute obligated Robin to report and disclose its representation of River Birch. It was neither disclosed nor reported; therefore, Robin was clearly in violation of the act.” The other is that Mr Ward evidently felt as though he was being shook down as he secretly recorded the conversations and delivered the recordings to the FBI which in turn evidently did nothing with the information. With the players now in place we found this suit was publicized just a bit and generally in the context of the 2008 elections where Alario, term limited out of the State House ran for the State Senate. Our readers can find additional background at Waste Age, a trade magazine and at the Times Picayune as we continue:
River Birch points to the various and frequent examples of representations (misrepresentations) made by Robin to Ward. Robin represented that he was very closely aligned with Alario and he could get him to kill the bill. He gave numerous examples of their close ties and connection. He told Ward that he was the only one who could’ defeat the bill. He further told him they were close friends, they went on vacations together, he operated out of Alario’s office, and he stayed at Alario’s apartment in the Pentagon Barracks…..
The 1st Circuit claims Robin misrepresented his relationship with Alario but I think the results here speak for themselves as the court, IMHO, is protecting one of their own as we continue:
Ward clearly expressed his feeling that he had no choice, but sign whatever agreement Robin wanted. He stated that he felt his landfill was being held hostage and the agreement for ownership of a percentage of the business was the ransom. He stated that Robin implied the whole matter was a sham or subterfuge. Once Robin had an agreement, Alario would allow the bill to be defeated. t was important that Alario “look good” to his constituents, while defeating the bill. Thus, Ward stated that he had no alternative but to sign the agreement with Robin giving him the 4% ownership interest. Considering all the representations or misrepresentations made by Robin, it is easy to see how Ward had apprehensions about the whole situation. However, Ward had been a businessman for a number of years involved in numerous projects. Robin initially wanted a 10% interest and Ward was able to negotiate it to 4%. He testified that Robin had wanted to include the Grimaldi brothers, friends of Alario who owned a construction company, in the contract to build the landfill. According to Robin this would help get Alario to kill the bill. However, since he had his own construction business, Ward did not need the Grimaldis and he was able to negotiate the contract without including them in it.
I could be wrong but I think the 1st circuit slathered lipstick all over a bribe calling it a negotiated contract. Pigs love mud but there was no way the court was going get into the River Birch pig pen and get their hands dirty wrestling with these guys. The ultimate losers would be the taxpaying citizens of Jefferson Parish as we’ll explore in a future post. The bottom line is I think we have the additional color to explain why Mr Theriot was named interim Parish President via the bums rush after Aaron Broussard called it quits.