River Birch, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and J.P. Morrell consort to stop recycling in New Orleans

According to the Times-Picayune:

With the demolition business still in overdrive a couple of years after Hurricane Katrina, New Jersey businessman David Stoller hatched a plan to start recycling construction materials from torn-down houses at a facility on the Gentilly side of the Industrial Canal. Initially, he had a hard time selling neighbors and bureaucrats on the idea.


The fourth article in a series on the River Birch landfill

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  • SATURDAY: Would-be competitors in Assumption Parish blame their permit struggles on the invisible hand of River Birch.
  • SUNDAY: Heebe and Ward finally achieve a long-sought monopoly, only to find themselves targets of a sprawling federal probe.

So Stoller, chief executive of TransLoad America Inc., met with community groups on both sides of the canal. The New Orleans City Planning Commission, which split 4-4 on the proposal the first time around, in part because of community objections, voted it through unanimously in September 2008. At least four neighborhood organizations were there to back the plan the second time.

All the project needed was City Council approval, and the councilwoman from Gentilly, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, had told Stoller she was ready to green-light it, he said. But powerful forces had lined up against Stoller.

TransLoad’s facility was going to take a big chunk of the construction and demolition debris business from the two nearest competitors: the Old Gentilly Landfill, in eastern New Orleans, and the Highway 90 Landfill, on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish.

TransLoad hoped its France Road sorting facility would take up to 2,000 tons a day out of the region’s waste stream — costing local debris landfills as much as $10 million a year in lost tipping fees.

Fred Heebe and Jim Ward, the owners of the Highway 90 Landfill, the busiest debris landfill in the region, didn’t plan to lie back and ignore the threat. Dutchie Connick, a lobbyist for Heebe and Ward and the brother of Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, was a fixture in the City Planning Commission’s office as he waited for TransLoad’s applications and other supporting documents to arrive.

Another consultant for the company, Rick Michaels, was sussing out the TransLoad project’s potential environmental impacts and feeding tips to the political operatives Heebe and Ward employed.

‘The bidding of the landfills’

At public meetings, veteran political consultant Ron Nabonne emerged as a leading opponent of the TransLoad proposal, as well as a second facility the company was pitching in eastern New Orleans.

A political operative for Fred Heebe and Jim Ward blanketed the surrounding neighborhood with glossy mailers warning that a proposed recycling plant would generate dust, massive truck traffic and possibly even cause a major flood. One flier, with a picture of a barge crashing through a levee, urged residents to ask their city councilwoman to vote it down.

Nabonne was a reliable presence at public meetings on the topic, and he warned that the France Road recycling plant was a “Trojan horse.” If it was approved, he promised, it would turn into a massive trash depot receiving refuse from all over the country, though the city Planning Commission had stipulated that TransLoad would be allowed to accept waste only from the New Orleans metro area.

Nabonne never disclosed at those meetings that he was on retainer for Heebe and Ward, a relationship he said began in 1999 and continues today. However, Nabonne said then, and strongly maintains now, that he was speaking as a private citizen in those post-Katrina days, not as a hired gun. He says he had grown increasingly upset — almost to the point of paranoia — as he watched landfills and other undesirable projects get approved in poor and mostly minority neighborhoods.

On at least a couple of occasions, Nabonne blanketed the surrounding neighborhood with glossy mailers warning that the recycling plant would generate dust, massive truck traffic and possibly even cause a major flood. One flier, with a picture of a barge crashing through a levee, urged residents to ask Hedge-Morrell to vote it down, and to attend the Oct. 16, 2008, council meeting to tell her so in person.

Nabonne said he paid for the fliers himself, at a cost of perhaps a few thousand dollars. Along with Nabonne, the other leading voice against the project was that of former New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, a longtime confidant of Nabonne’s.

When the Planning Commission met to consider the TransLoad project in September 2008, only six people showed up to voice their objections. None of them lived within two miles of the site. They included Barthelemy; his wife, Mickey; her brother, Thomas Thibodeaux Jr.; the Barthelemys’ next-door neighbor, Rhea Lucien; Blayne Bondy, a radio host on WBOK-AM who lived near UNO at the time; and Joyce Brossett, Barthelemy’s sister and a relative of Hedge-Morrell’s then-chief of staff, Jared Brossett.

Tempers flared at the meeting, according to the minutes, when a supporter of the TransLoad project, Lyndell Harnes, said the opponents were not motivated by conviction but because “political cronies would not benefit from its approval.” Stoller suggested that Nabonne was “doing the bidding of the landfills,” in particular River Birch, a suggestion Nabonne angrily rebuked.

Despite the dust-up, the measure passed the commission 9-0, and Stoller was looking forward to City Council approval on Oct. 16.

Sometime in the intervening weeks, the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association, an umbrella organization for many neighborhood groups, took a position strongly opposing the TransLoad proposal. The association’s current president, David Welch, recalls the group was swayed by Barthelemy and his wife, “who really came to our rescue.” The Barthelemys warned of the dangers posed by concrete crushing, and said not to be fooled by TransLoad’s promises.

When New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell withdrew her support from a proposed recycling center in 2008, the project developer says he gave up.

On the night of Oct. 15, less than 24 hours before the council meeting, Stoller said, he got a call from Jared Brossett, who informed him that Hedge-Morrell was no longer going to support the project. Stoller was flabbergasted: He had flown Hedge-Morrell to New Jersey to observe his operations there, and he had wooed the neighborhood groups she said he needed to get on board. He had signed on to a “community engagement agreement.”

Without Hedge-Morrell’s support, the project was essentially dead: By tradition, the City Council allows district council members to call the shots for zoning matters in the areas they represent. Stoller gave up.

Flood of donations

In late 2008, Hedge-Morrell’s son, J.P. Morrell, was a state representative hoping to get promoted to the state Senate. He was running for the seat that Derrick Shepherd, a River Birch ally, relinquished on Oct. 10, when he resigned and pleaded guilty to money laundering.

Two weeks after his mother killed the TransLoad project, Morrell received a bundle of four checks for $2,500 apiece. They came from four different firms that all have close links to River Birch.

Just over a month later, and days before the Dec. 6 election, Morrell received another infusion of cash from the River Birch crowd. This time, contributions of $2,500 apiece came from four different firms.

Seven of the eight firms that donated were labeled “straw man companies” by the state Board of Ethics in a pending lawsuit. Six of them were formed on the same date: March 12, 2007. State records show that three of them — Anne’s Properties, Big Bang Properties and Dangle and Associates — are managed by Anne Dangle, Ward’s daughter and Heebe’s stepsister. She is also a shareholder in River Birch, according to a 1999 company document.

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Two of the other firms, B&C Contractors and Water Front Properties, are managed by Dominick Russo, Ward’s son-in-law and Heebe’s brother-in-law. Russo’s wife, Adrea Heebe, is also a River Birch shareholder.

The other three firms that gave to Morrell — Door Lock LLC, Pasture Land LLC and Ring Associates — are managed by Dominick Fazzio, River Birch’s chief financial officer. Fazzio is awaiting trial on federal charges in a case tangential to the landfill probe.

Six of the eight companies that gave to Morrell were also named in an application for a search warrant filed by federal investigators before a raid on River Birch’s offices in September 2010. A few months later, former Wildlife and Fisheries Commissioner Henry Mouton admitted taking bribes from River Birch’s owners to use his influence to close down competing landfills, in particular the Old Gentilly Landfill in eastern New Orleans.

Anne’s Properties and Dangle and Associates both also served as conduits for bribe payments from River Birch to Mouton, according to federal prosecutors.

Before the TransLoad matter, campaign finance reports don’t show many donations flowing from the Heebe camp to the Morrell camp, which now includes four elected officials: the councilwoman; J.P. Morrell, now a state senator; Arthur Morrell, the councilwoman’s husband and the clerk of Criminal District Court; and Brossett, who was elected to the state House seat that J.P. Morrell left.

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But after TransLoad was dead, the money started to come in earnest. In addition to the $20,000 received by J.P. Morrell, Brossett received $5,000 in early 2009 from Anne’s Properties. And in early 2010, two other River Birch-related entities contributed $2,500 apiece to Hedge-Morrell.

Both Hedge-Morrell and her son, the senator, say they opposed the project because the community opposed it. “The people of Gentilly and New Orleans East loudly and clearly communicated that they did not want a processing facility for solid waste in their neighborhoods,” Hedge-Morrell said in a statement.

Both also said they have never been swayed by campaign donations.

“Let me be clear: Never have campaign contributors, mine nor Sen. Morrell’s, affected how I represent my district and conduct myself on the New Orleans City Council,” Hedge-Morrell said.

Morrell noted he has received nearly 1,000 campaign donations over the years, and said he is “thankful for each of them.” But, he added, “I take my role as senator very seriously and will continue to represent the interests of my constituency day in and day out.”

“It really was a tragedy that we were shut down.”

Stoller still feels burned by his experience in New Orleans, which he said cost him about $2 million with nothing to show for it.

“What we were going to bring — and never say never — would have been a tremendous contribution to the city, which still does not have a recycling center,” he said. “It really was a tragedy that we were shut down.”

Environmental concerns

Not everyone is so sure.

Nabonne and Barthelemy insist the concrete-crushing could have sent dust airborne over a wide swath of neighborhoods, and Nabonne said he believes the facility would have grown in scope once it had been approved. Siting such a place in a neighborhood mostly populated by black families of modest means was a clear example of “environmental racism,” Nabonne said.

Nabonne’s fears may have some basis. A similar recycling station owned by TransLoad in East Providence, R.I., has drawn the ire of its neighbors, who complain that dust from the facility causes respiratory distress. Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management has said the recycler is in compliance, but the state’s attorney general filed suit last year to block an expansion.

Jim Ward, left, and his stepson Fred Heebe turned River Birch into a landfill empire.

In New Orleans, the environmental community was mixed on the merits of TransLoad’s local project. Though there was universal praise for reusing wood, rock and metal while drastically reducing the waste stream, there were other concerns.

Despite those positives, Wilma Subra, a New Iberia chemist who works with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said she felt the proposed TransLoad facility was too close to the neighboring community.

But Joel Waltzer, a New Orleans lawyer who has represented the Louisiana Environmental Action Network on most of its crusades, including the group’s fights against the Chef Menteur and Old Gentilly landfills, said he thought the France Road recycling plant had merit.

“You’d be extending the life of the landfills in the area, and taking the trash out of flood zones,” Waltzer said. “I’ve looked in my career at dozens of solid waste solutions for New Orleans, and this one may have been the least offensive.”

Beverly Wright, director of Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, also thinks the concerns about the recycling facility were overwrought.

“I really thought it would have been a good thing, because it was recycling,” she said. “But we couldn’t get that off the ground. People had different motives in this, but nobody had the community’s interest at heart. They created such a divisive climate we didn’t get anything.”