GOOD NEWS: Some people just don’t know how to
throw a party. With the umpteenth annual Earth Day right around
the corner, I am bracing for the inevitable tsunami of doom
’n’ gloom factoids
proving, yet again, how we’ve screwed
up the planet beyond redemption. Okay, maybe we have, but is this
really a reason to be so negative? I’d rather observe Earth Day by
celebrating the rash of recycling fraud now taking place. Two
months ago, the operators of one L.A. recycling and sorting
facility were charged with perpetrating a $6 million recycling
scam. Last month, the operators of another pled guilty to ripping
off $2.5 million. And apparently, it might be happening right here
in Santa Barbara, too. We should be very proud. The fact that
recycling has become a fertile field for thieves and scam artists
demonstrates the extent to which the environmental movement has
arrived. Investigators with the Santa Barbara Sheriffs Department
have launched a criminal investigation of Waste
 — a company that runs a Materials Recovery
Facility (MRF) up in Santa Maria at which bottles, cans, plastics,
paper, and cardboard are sorted and sold. The suspicion is that
Waste Management has misappropriated $1 million that otherwise
should have gone to the County of Santa Barbara. Waste Management
is one of the trash industry’s big three, and according to some
industry watchers, can be found in the encyclopedia in the
“anti-Christ” section. The Waste Management MRF processes the
commingled residential recyclables of North County and some from
South County, too. There, they are unmingled, bundled, and trucked
to places like Long Beach where they are then shipped via tankers
to faraway lands like China where they are turned
into new toys and packing boxes for electronic equipment. The point
is this stuff has value, which fluctuates day to day much like the
price of hog bellies. Under its franchise agreement, Waste
Management must split the proceeds of any recyclable sales with the
county. Everybody gets a cut.

According to people in the trash business, there’s about a
million ways for operators to cheat, and according to one very
disgruntled former Waste Management employee named Mark
, the company’s managers were exploiting every single
one of them at the county’s expense. Wall worked for Waste
Management as a bookkeeper data-entry dude from 2001 to 2004.
During that time, he claims, he was instructed by his bosses to
lie, cheat, and steal. If recyclables were selling for $120, he
claims he was told to report Waste Management got only $115. The
company would then pocket the $5 difference. Wall claims he crafted
a program on his company laptop to keep the true sale price off the
official books and hide this information from the county. The more
money he kept from the county, Wall said, the bigger the bonus his
bosses got. Initially, Wall claimed he was not allowed to see the
actual contract so he didn’t know for a fact he was breaking the
law. But he had his suspicions. He said he confronted one boss,
asking how he could go to church on Sunday and steal Monday through
Friday. Wall claimed his boss replied, “What does God have to do
with business?” When new management came in, Wall said he finally
could read Waste Management’s contract with the county. That’s when
he knew for certain he’d been complicit in criminal acts. Wall
claims he blew the whistle then, and that for a while the practices
stopped. But then the old managers returned, and it all started up

With Wall’s allegations of a smoking laptop,
the county Sheriffs Department initiated a criminal investigation.
But when one investigator called Wall at work, he said he got cold
feet. “I have a wife and two children,” he explained. When he
declined to stand by his initial story, the investigator asked if
he’d been lying. Wall said he answered, “I made everything up.” But
even after he quit in 2004, Wall said he couldn’t let go. By then
he said he’d been threatened and intimidated. Last month, after
waking up one night in a cold sweat — he’d been dreaming his former
boss was hunting him in the woods and shot him — he blew the
whistle a second time. On March 31, he mailed a three-page,
single-spaced typewritten letter detailing many of the same
allegations and mailed them out to about 25 people in law
enforcement and county government. Because of Wall’s on-again,
off-again statements, investigators find him a less-than-reliable
witness. But he claims he tape-recorded all his incriminating
conversations with his bosses. When they’d tell him to do something
questionable, Wall said he’d turn on his tape recorder, repeat what
they just told him, and ask them if that’s what they wanted him to
do. I haven’t seen or heard these tapes, but if they exist as
described, I’m sure they’re damning.

County solid waste officials called Waste Management in for a
chat shortly after Wall first leveled his accusations. Lo and
behold, Waste Management discovered upon a closer examination of
their records that they’d short-changed the county to the tune of
nearly a half-million bucks in recycling revenues between 2001 and
2004. Oops. The county then hired a snooty Newport Beach
firm — Hilton Farnkopf & Hobson, which
specializes in recycling fraud — to audit Waste Management’s books.
Last October, the auditors concluded the company may have
short-changed the county $1 million between 1998 and 2004, but made
no finding of criminal intent. Only Wall has made that charge, but
Sheriff’s investigators are looking at it anew. Admittedly $1
million isn’t what it used to be, but a whole lot of people are
chillin’ in state prison for stealing a lot less.

In the meantime, Wall’s smoking laptop, which he left when he
quit in 2004, has yet to be found. Maybe the disputed million
dollars is just a big misunderstanding over contract language. It
happens. But I’m kind of hoping the Wall scenario proves correct.
It makes for a better story, but it also proves, however
underhandedly, the value of recycling. If something’s worth ripping
off, it must be worth something. I know that may not sound like
much, for me it calls for a celebration.


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