County approves garbage collection rate hike as grand jury, FBI probe Waste Pro
At its July 10 meeting the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved an 8% rate increase for WastePro, the Florida-based garbage hauler with whom the county has a contract through 2019. (That amounted to less than half the 17% increase Waste Pro was seeking.)
Earlier that day, Waste Pro’s regional vice president walked into a federal courthouse in Tallahassee, Florida. He was apparently summoned there by a grand jury that is reviewing evidence collected in an FBI public corruption investigation in which Waste Pro plays a central part.
And the Tallahassee developments are the latest in a litany of charges of crooked dealings and shoddy service that have been dogging Waste Pro’s corporate footsteps during the entire time it has been a Buncombe County vendor.
Garbage out, garbage in?
Buncombe County’s contract for garbage collection in unincorporated areas is put out for bids every ten years. In 2010 the county fired its previous collector, Republic Services of North Carolina, and awarded the contract to Waste Pro.
But the arrangement has been a rocky one. In 2015, after hundreds of customer complaints about missed service, the county threatened to sever relations with Waste Pro, going so far as to send the service a termination letter. This launched a torrent of accusations and counter accusations between the two parties, at the height of which Waste Pro threatened to sue the county. One of Waste Pro’s chief complaints was that the county did not include the collection fee as a lump-sum annual item on residents’ tax bills.
The county backed off saying, well, it probably hadn’t kept close enough tabs on Waste Pro’s pickups and might therefore be partly to blame. Former county manager Wanda Greene recommended the county abandon its termination plans, saying “[Waste Pro would have] every right to walk away and that [would leave] a lot of homes without any waste collection service” while a new vendor was found.
So in the end the county gave Waste Pro a 60- to 90-day window to clean up its act. For its part, Waste Pro said it was adding five new trucks as well as new GPS systems. After that the problem — or at least discussion of it — seemed to go away … until early this year (see below).
Meanwhile, in Tallahassee …
The husband and wife team of Sean and Christina Jennings founded Waste Pro in Longwood, Florida, in 2001. In October, 2017, the Orlando Business Journal listed Waste Pro as the fourth-largest privately owned company in central Florida. According to its website, the company currently serves more than 500 cities and towns across the South, 250 of them by exclusive contract.
But as Ralph Mills, Waste Pro’s Southern Regional Vice President, entered the Leon County Federal Courthouse on the same day that Buncombe County approved the Waste Pro rate hike, he trailed behind him, Marley-like, a chain of accusations, complaints, investigations and terminations that have been steadily accumulating around Waste Pro. Mills and his attorneys did not speak to reporters, but the only activity going on in the courthouse that morning was the meeting of the grand jury, which has ben sifting through the fallout from an FBI search warrant and an accompanying affidavit that were under seal but were accidentally posted on the federal court’s website back on February 5.
Those documents detail an alleged “bribery scheme” involving Tallahassee City Commissioner and former mayor Scott Maddox; his “close friend” and former mayoral chief of staff Paige Carter-Smith, who is now executive director of Tallahassee’s Downtown Improvement Authority; a consulting firm called Governance, which the two of them jointly owned; and several city and county vendors, one of which appears to be Waste Pro.
A Whiff of Scandal
The 21-page affidavit includes allegations that Governance paid Maddox to perform “official acts” on behalf of three unnamed Governance client companies. “Company Three,” which is identified as “a waste services provider,” has paid Governance a total of $170,000 through Governance since 2013, according to the affidavit.
The FBI’s investigation turned up a contract, handwritten on Governance letterhead and dated March 12, 2010, whereby Maddox sold Governance to Carter-Smith for $100,000, payable in full no later than seven years from that date. Maddox and Carter-Smith have said the transfer was made in order to avoid any possible conflict of interest. However, Maddox continued to do contract work for Governance; records show that Carter-Smith (as Governance) paid Maddox $106,000 — more than she paid him for the company itself — from 2011 through 2012.
Despite these previous hometown glitches, Waste Pro threw its hat in the ring again this year for reappointment as Tallahassee’s garbage collector. But on June 18 — just days before its rate increase was approved up in Buncombe County, North Carolina — Tallahassee Commissioners struck Waste Pro’s contract approval off its agenda because a competing company questioned the point-scoring system the city had used to evaluate the bidders. The resulting delay touched off a re-examination of Maddox’s and Carter-Smith’s cozy dealings with Waste Pro, during which the Tallahassee Democrat reported, “Waste Pro has acknowledged that it has been cooperating with the FBI in its public corruption investigation in Tallahassee that has focused in on Maddox and Carter-Smith.”
While further south … (Does any of this sound familiar?)
In 2011, as Maddox and Carter-Smith were drawing up their holographic agreement in Tallahassee, Peter Boder, the then mayor of the city of Hollywood, Florida, asked the FBI to examine “disturbing allegations” that municipal officials, including then City Manager Cameron Benson, had been accepting gifts and money from Waste Pro representatives looking to secure the city’s waste removal contract.
Both WFOR-TV and the Miami Herald reported that Benson had deputized several “close personal friends” to advise Waste Pro lobbyists during the “cone of silence,” a post-bid, pre-acceptance period when vendors and city representatives aren’t supposed to be communicating. Further, theHeraldsaid, Waste Pro had treated two city public works employees to expensive meals during which they were allegedly given a gift card as well as a money order for “home improvement services” to Benson’s vacation home in Nova Scotia.
Waste Pro was awarded the Hollywood contract.
In June, 2017, the city of Palm Coast, in Florida’s Flagler County, renewed its contract with Waste Pro, despite having made the company pay more than $12,000 in delinquent collection fines. But by March of this year, fines for sloppy service already totalled more than $8,000 and city officials, exasperated by the number of complaints they were receiving, were talking seriously about dismissing the company.
In addition to its contract with Palm Coast, Waste Pro is also the appointed trash collector for unincorporated areas of Flagler County. County commissioners invited Waste Pro’s local manager to discuss collection problems, but the newsblog Flagler Live called that meeting “more of a thank you session than an accounting” and said “the manager was sent back with pats on the back.” Palm City, however, wasn’t having it and went ahead with its plans to consider termination. The Palm Coast city manager said of Waste Pro’s service simply, “It stinks.”
Just Down the Road
Also in March, the city of Summerville, South Carolina, abruptly cancelled its contract with Waste Pro, which had only been in place since January. Summerville officials had notified Waste Pro as early as January 27 that it was receiving numerous complaints ranging from lack of pickup to subscribers’ not having received their recycling bins. The situation grew worse instead of better and the city declared Waste Pro to be in breach of contract without further ado.
Even closer to home, in February, Henderson County gave Waste Pro 30 days to clean up its act, citing weeks of missed collections. The Town of Laurel Park, an incorporated Hendersonville suburb, piled on, adding commingling of waste and recyclable materials to the list of grievances. In both cases, Waste Pro pleaded snow- and ice-covered roads as well as the additional burden placed on its resources after it acquired 8,000 customers from Republic Services, its predecessor in Asheville. That dog wouldn’t hunt, Henderson County said; if you acquire 8,000 new customers, presumably you can accommodate them. (Henderson County’s garbage collection is a free-for all, with Waste Pro being only one of 14 companies licensed to collect garbage there.)
Bringing It All Back Home
In Buncombe County, Waste Pro serves some 27,000 subscribers weekly, using 18 to 20 trucks, according to Asheville Citizen-Times writer John Boyle in an August, 2017 column. Boyle said he had checked with county accountant Donna Cottrell, who told him that complaints to the county about Waste Pro were “down to approximately one per week,” while some weeks passed with no complaints at all. Then came winter.
During the week of January 15, 2018, there was another spike in calls to the county regarding lack of garbage pickup. This time, instead of threatening Waste Pro with termination, county administration called on Waste Pro to make a public apology to its customers. This Waste Pro promptly did, distributing a tepid mea culpa letter to subscribers, saying its poor performance was not a dereliction of duty but in fact the result of an attempt to improve service by altering its routes. At the time, Councilor Joe Belcher remarked, “No contract is forever.”
In preparation for this article, Enquiring Minds reached out to county commissioners individually, asking (1) whether, during their time on Commission, there had been any discussion of Waste Pro’s corporate track record and ethics controversies; and (2) whether Commission would be looking into Waste Pro’s doings ahead of considering their contract renewal next year.
Only two commissioners replied. Mike Fryar called attention to Commission’s approval of only half the rate increase Waste Pro had sought. He did not comment further. Belcher, who had seemed to express dissatisfaction with Waste Pro in January, replied only, “Thanks for sharing.”
Even as the two commissioners responded, the Tallahassee paper was speculating that indictments in the Waste Pro matter would be forthcoming soon. Its story was titled, “Indictment Eve?”
Enquring Minds reporter Diana Starr contributed to this report.