Houston’s trash deal smells, wants probe into possible bid rigging, recycling inventor says

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AP PHOTO/ERIC GAY

The Chairman of the Houston company proposing a “One Bin” solution for Houston residents’ trash asked for investigations into Mayor Sylvester Turner and some of his top team on how they handled the city’s garbage contracting proposals, as well possible bid rigging and lobbying violations at City Hall.

George Gitschel of Eco-Hub on Wednesday called on City Attorney Ron Lewis and City Controller Chris Brown to conduct the investigations. Eco-Hub appeared close to a deal with the city when Turner scrapped the “One Bin” plan.

“One Bin” was a proposal to collect all trash, recycling and yard waste in one can and recycle as much as 75 percent of it. The company proposed reducing garbage trucks routes from three to one and putting all trash and recycling in just one bin. The company would then sell the recycling materials for new products.

“I invented this system and I did it to try to eliminate garbage on earth,” Gitschel said. “I figured out a way to do it, and I’ve partnered with huge companies that would help me do it.”

The savings to taxpayers could have been as much as $40 million with zero cost to taxpayers, Gitschel said.

Gitschel said Eco-Hub’s proposed state-of-the-art recycling facilities would eliminate the need for landfills. He said he believes that threatened the trillion-dollar garbage industry that makes the lion’s share of its money off of hauling trash to landfills. Gitschel also claimed that city Solid Waste Management Director Harry Hayes is too chummy with those giant trash firms — and that’s why the city threw his plan into the dustbin at the last minute and went with a far more expensive company.

“It’s filthy, filthy, filthy dirty,” Gitschel told The Texas Monitor. “The bid is rigged… Harry Hayes has been fighting this thing from day one. Tell me this: If you have a system that will eliminate waste from going into a landfill, and keep all of that stuff out, and save the city money, why wouldn’t you embrace it and look into it?”

He also described his experience with the city, “rotten and corrupt.”

See a letter from Mayor Turner apparently praising Eco-Hub and its partners just weeks before he threw out the plan.

The city, under former Mayor Annise Parker, was awarded a one-million-dollar prize from the Bloomberg Foundation for Eco-Hub’s “One Bin” idea. After years of work starting with Parker, the city, under Turner, passed on it and decided not to continue contract negotiations.

When the city dumped Gitschel, it opened up a new bid for simple recycling while using the traditional method of hauling most waste to landfills. That contract is up for a council vote as early as July 19, but Gitschel didn’t bid on it.

He said there was little point in bidding for the deal since the request for proposal — called an RFP in shorthand — that the city issued was largely the traditional trash plan to use landfills for most of the waste from the 376,820 homes served by city trash collection.

“It was a 55-page document that had two paragraphs on One Bin,” Gitschel said at a press conference early Wednesday hosted by former investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino, who now runs Dolcefino Consulting. “There was no evaluation criteria, there’s no scoring criteria, there was a qualification that you had to have an operating plant up and running to even qualify for it so there was no way we could do this.”

At a Wednesday news conference, the mayor dismissed Gitschel’s claims.

“They had every right to submit a bid like five other companies did, they chose not to,” Turner said at a news conference Wednesday. The company who won the deal is FCC Environmental, an international waste management conglomerate.

Turner also defended his team, including trash boss Hayes. Turner also said he was never a fan of the “One Bin” plan.

“I’m not going to do it,” Turner said. “It doesn’t make any sense. None, especially when this contractor didn’t go through the RFP process on my watch.”

Eco-Hub filed a bid protest in December. It appears to have been largely ignored. Gitschel said he believes Turner and the City Attorney kept the bid protest secret from members of Houston City Council.

“They are innocent in all this,” Gitschel said.

See the bid protest here.

Gitschel also wants an investigation into Marvalette Hunter, Turner’s new chief of staff. Gitschel was using Hunter to lobby for his company while he was trying to close his recycling deal.

Gitschel now thinks Hunter was playing him all along and wants the city attorney to probe possible ethics violations and require her to disclose who else she represented before becoming Chief of Staff to see if there are potential conflicts of interest.

Hunter never registered to lobby for Eco-Hub, records show. Gitschel provided documents to The Texas Monitor, including emails, showing that Hunter was indeed, apparently lobbying for Eco-Hub. She terminated the contract before she was paid.

Gitschel and Dolcefino want the city to release all e-mails sent or received by Solid Waste Chief Hayes. Turner so far has refused to release any e-mails, Dolcefino said. He also said the city will not release records on Turner’s deal negotiations that ended Gitschel’s dream of free recycling for Houstonians.

Gitschel and Dolcefino are also calling on FCC Environmental to disclose the names of any Houston-based consultants or companies being hired as part of the recycling contract. If City Council approves the new recycling deal, FCC stands to make more than 50 million dollars, Dolcefino said.

It’s not likely that the city attorney will do any digging.

“The City [Attorney] has received the letter and finds that the assertions being made have no merit. Eco-Hub chose not to participate in the procurement process, and subsequently withdrew their bidding protest, therefore no further action is necessary,” according to a statement from the mayor provided to ABC13 late Wednesday.

That does not surprise Gitschel who predicted that neither the city attorney nor the city controller will take action.

Gitschel hinted, however, that he is talking to others who may investigate.

“It’s not going to come to light through the city attorney’s office,” he said. “There’s lots of different law enforcement agencies out there. Lots of different agencies interested in government corruption and antitrust and RICO.” RICO stands for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a federal law largely used to look at racketeering, influence peddling, and bribery.

“I’m going to keep fighting,” Gitschel said. “I’m not giving up.”

Much of this controversy comes in the wake of investigations into city recycling practices by ABC13’s Ted Oberg. Indeed, last week under questioning by Oberg, a visibly angry Turner gave few reasons for dumping Gitschel and his company.

From ABC13 last week:

When ABC13 Investigates started asking questions, the city gave us all sorts of explanations for why the project died: no proof it will work, no guarantees it can support itself, questions over financial irregularities — all reasonable, but no one from the city was willing to explain any of them, none of those concerns are included in the most recent city documents we reviewed, and it’s still unclear why Mayor Turner dropped it.

“One Bin did not start with me,” Turner said. “One Bin started with the previous administrations. We are under new management now. I am under no obligation to carry forth something that started with the previous administration.”

See the full exchange between the mayor and Oberg here:

See ABC13’s investigations here:

You can see news coverage on the issue from Wednesday here:

Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.

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Trent is an award-winning editor and reporter, who has previously worked The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Most recently, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13. He was also the editor and founder of Texas Watchdog, a ground-breaking news group that paved the way for this project. Trent is a teacher of journalism skills, and has shown hundreds of reporters and citizen-journalists how to use public records, databases and journalism tools to keep a watchful eye on their own local government.

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