News 4 Investigates: Cash for Trash

City councilman awarded the contract to the highest bidder, and its costing residents money. (Credit: KMOV)

It’s going to cost you millions.

The city council of the second largest city in the metro area made the call on a new trash services contract, and now some people who live there are wondering if something stinks.

"I am shocked still to this day. Shocked,” said Mary Laulo.

Laulo wouldn't call herself an activist.

“I'm really a very quiet person,” she said.

Still, she and husband Bill moved to O’Fallon, Mo. back in 2004 to be close to their grandchildren and ever since, she's kept an eye on city government.

“When I see things that aren't clicking right, I usually say something,” she said.

But a decision by the city council last year, she says, is unreal.

“Everybody I told was like, what, you can't believe that!” said Laulo.

The council had three choices for a new trash transfer station contract.

After the city's finance director and auditor analyzed the numbers, They said the first company would have actually made money for the city, about $800,000 over ten years. The second would cost the city $4.4 million. And the third, they said, would cost: $5.1 million.

Over the possible 30-year life of the contract, the finance staff said, the third option could cost $30 million, six times higher than the lowest bid.

Mayor Bill Hennessey recommended the city take the lowest bidder, but instead the council voted for the highest.

The mayor couldn't believe it.

"To me, the lowest bid was the best bid," Hennessey said.

So who won the contract?? Republic Services.

They own the Bridgeton Landfill and face a current lawsuit. They’ve been in the news recently for the trash smoldering underneath the landfill.

To this day, Mayor Hennessey says he can't figure out why the council gave them the contract based on the numbers. He says residents' trash bills will go up because of it.

So, why the decision? News 4 went digging, not through the trash, but through public records.

We started by following the money and taking a look at campaign finance reports.

Turns out that at least seven of the current council members took donations either directly from Republic Services or a subsidiary, or though political action committees which are themselves partly funded by Republic Services.

For example, councilmember Rick Battelle received a $1,000 donation from Republic Services back in 2013.

"I did not know, if it's on my treasury report, that's something I would have to ask my treasurer about," said Battelle.

He denied any conflict of interest, instead he says he voted for Republic Services because of concerns about the other two bidders.

He said the lowest bidder, a nationwide company which has facilities in Bridgeton, Maryland Heights and Valley Park, had recently merged with another company.

“When you get a zero cost bid, it makes me nervous, because I question, 1.) can they honor that and 2.) can they provide the service we expect?” Battelle said.

“It just didn't sit well in my gut, so it didn't seem like the best long term partnership,” said Council member Tom Herweck.

Council member Tom Herweck received close to $3,000 dollars in donations from PACs backed by Republic Services, but he also said that didn't have anything to do with his decision to give them the contract.

“There's no conflict of interest at all, nope,” Herweck said.

But there's more.

Tony Lamantia works for Republic Services. In fact, his Linkedin says he's responsible for municipal bidding and he was the city's official contact during the bid process.

According to cell phone records we reviewed, he and one council member, Jeff Schwentker, liked to talk on the phone.

There were about a dozen calls over a year throughout the bid process, one even at 11:30 at night.

And Tony knows council member Bob Howell too.

We went to Tony's house and who did we find? Bob Howell’s daughter. She lives with Tony because she's dating his son.

“At any point did you consider recusing yourself because of her relationship with Tony's son?” asked Investigative Reporter Lauren Trager. “Of course not, of course not,” said Howell.

After several requests for an on-camera interview, we spoke with Howell over the phone. He’s running for mayor in April. He, too, denied having too close of a relationship with Republic Services.

“Absolutely not, my daughter's life has nothing to do with me and my city business,” Howell said.

“I find it very, very suspect,” said Laulo.

Bill and Mary Laulo say the council members should have at least acknowledged all of their ties to Republic Services in public.

Though she's no lawyer, she's now filed a lawsuit, hoping to get the entire contract tossed out.

Republic Service's lawyers have already stepped in to fight her, but to make sure she and her neighbors don't pay more when they take out their trash, she says she won't be discouraged.

“If you look up persistence in the dictionary, it says Mary Laulo,” she said.

Tony Lamantia denies doing anything wrong during the process and council member Schwentker says he often makes after-hours calls about the city on various topics.

Republic Services sent us a statement saying, in part, it was a good contract and they'll stand by the city in defending its objective decision.

There is evidence that city leaders had some contact with reps from other bidders too. That’s all the more reason, Mary says, the contract process should be started over.

Full statement from Republic Services:“We are thrilled to have been selected as the best bidder to operate the transfer station. As a large employer in Missouri, we are eager to invest in O’Fallon, and bring best-in-class capabilities to the community. This is a good contract for the City of O’Fallon.

As an industry leader, we recognize that the contracting process can sometimes be contentious. While we were not named in the lawsuit, we will stand with the City of O’Fallon in defending its objective decision.”

Copyright 2017 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved

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