- The U.S. Supreme Court denied an effort by River Birch Inc. to block a Waste Management subsidiary's lawsuit on Monday. Waste Management of Louisiana alleges that River Birch's owners, Albert Ward and his stepson Fred Heebe, bribed former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to shut down the Chef Menteur landfill in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina.
- Waste Management filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) suit last spring against River Birch. The company argued in an April 10 appeal that the shuttering of Chef Menteur "caused it to lose business that accrued to the benefit of its competitor." The waste giant also alleges its rival contributed $20,000 to Nagin's 2006 re-election campaign in exchange for the landfill's closure, engaging in "a pattern and practice of conduct—including bribery" to shut down the site.
- River Birch asked the Supreme Court in October to reverse a Fifth Circuit Court decision to use RICO standards when determining the case should go to trial. The Dec. 9 decision from the high court not to block the lawsuit paves the way for Waste Management to press on. Waste Management declined to comment and River Birch did not respond as of publishing time.
The Supreme Court decision marks the latest turn in a legal fight spanning nearly a decade, after Waste Management first sued in September 2011. Landfill executives Heebe and Ward are themselves major political donors in Louisiana who most recently played a key role in re-electing Gov. John Bel Edwards.
According to Waste Management's legal filings, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, New Orleans sought additional landfill capacity to address soaring waste needs. At that time, Nagin declared a state of emergency that was later renewed 15 times. The declaration allowed for the evasion of traditional requirements, such as a conditional use permit approved by the New Orleans City Council.
Waste Management submitted a proposal to open Chef Menteur in November 2005, and Nagin later suspended zoning ordinance provisions to allow for construction the following year. The company entered into a written agreement with the city in February 2006, albeit without an end date. The mayor faced immediate pushback from residents as well as from the council, whose members passed a resolution on April 6, 2006 condemning the landfill.
Competition also quickly became an issue, as Waste Management clashed with Ward and Heebe's sites in the area, sparring over tens of millions of dollars in tipping fees.
According to the company's April 10 case filing to the Fifth Circuit, two weeks before a run-off election Nagin called River Birch co-owner Ward for a donation. Heebe and Ward later made the $20,000 donation through four shell corporations each giving $5,000 — the limit under federal campaign finance laws. Both men also bankrolled a lawsuit over Chef Menteur's environmental effects.
Two months later, the re-elected mayor announced the executive order authorizing the landfill would expire in August. When that time came, the city ordered Chef Menteur's closure. Nagin has since been convicted on separate corruption charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
A similar situation played out in neighboring Jefferson Parish, where Waste Management said River Birch bribed Parish President Aaron Broussard. That case has since been settled, but the New Orleans case has continued for years.
River Birch has maintained there was no "quid pro quo" involved in the company's campaign donations and that no evidence exists to indicate bribery was involved. Waste Management asserts "a jury could reasonably conclude from circumstantial evidence" that River Birch broke the law. Finding judges able to rule on the case has also been a challenge, as many have had to recuse themselves due to conflicts of interest involving donations from Ward and Heebe.
In 2017, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt threw out the bribery claims, but the Fifth Circuit ruled in April that Waste Management's claims should be heard. That court felt the company's arguments could be persuasive to a jury. The Supreme Court decision allows the Fifth Circuit ruling to stand — handing a win to Waste Management for the moment.