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Riverside Officials Delay Action as FBI Probes Waste Firm

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stung by federal grand jury subpoenas for their financial and office records, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to postpone action on a controversial landfill expansion proposal sought by Western Waste Industries, one of Southern California’s biggest refuse companies and the focus of an FBI political corruption probe.

The board, on a 4-1 vote, also agreed to refer the landfill project for review by the county Planning Commission, which was bypassed when the supervisors gave initial approval to the expansion earlier this year.

“I don’t believe it would be proper to move forward under this cloud,” said Supervisor Tom Mullen, a former undersheriff, who called for the postponement until completion of the federal probe.

The only vote against the delay was cast by Supervisor John Tavaglione, who wanted the proposal killed.

Mullen said he had no information that any members of the board were targets of the investigation and he insisted that the FBI was “just doing its job.”

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But colleague Bob Buster, the leading supporter of the Western Waste proposal, accused the FBI of “impeding the legislative process.” Never before in California history, he said, have the personal and office records of an entire board of supervisors been subpoenaed in a criminal investigation.

Supervisor Roy Wilson also criticized the FBI’s issuance of sweeping subpoenas and called for “putting pressure” on federal authorities to quickly “clear the air.”

The probe of Western Waste, headquartered in Torrance, is an outgrowth of earlier FBI investigations into political corruption in Compton and Louisiana.

According to testimony in her recently concluded extortion trial, former Compton Councilwoman Patricia Moore confessed to federal agents in 1994 that she received payoffs of $500 to $1,000 a month from a Western Waste vice president with the knowledge of company Chairman Kosti Shirvanian and his sister, Savey Tufenkian, who served as secretary-treasurer.

Western Waste has an exclusive contract to pick up commercial refuse in Compton but was not charged in the Moore case. The charges against Moore involved two other companies doing business with the city. Moore was convicted on 15 criminal counts.

In the Louisiana case, Vernon Hizel, a onetime Western Waste vice president, admitted taking part in a $150,000 payoff to a Louisiana state lawmaker who was helping Western Waste obtain permits to open a landfill near Baton Rouge. Hizel received probation and a fine earlier this year in exchange for cooperating with the FBI.

Aside from Hizel’s actions, Western Waste officials say their own internal investigation has found no evidence of wrongdoing by any company official.

In brief appearances before the board of supervisors Tuesday, Les Bittenson, Western Waste’s chief executive officer, and Donald F. Moorehead Jr., an executive with its parent company, USA Waste Services of Dallas, denied any improprieties by Western Waste.

Bittenson said afterward he was deeply disappointed by the board’s reluctance to act.

Although the board agreed to review the issue in six months, the delay represents a major blow for Western Waste, which needs to enlarge the capacity of its El Sobrante dump site near Corona to maintain its dominance in Southern California.

The company sought permission to expand the capacity of El Sobrante from 8 million to 108 million tons, a 1,250% increase. The proposal would also have increased the daily intake from 4,000 to 10,000 tons.

Riverside County waste management officials estimate that without the expansion, Western Waste could exhaust its permitted capacity at El Sobrante in about two years.

Tuesday’s vote climaxed several weeks of high tension in county political circles as FBI agents descended on government offices with grand jury subpoenas for records concerning Western Waste and El Sobrante dating back more than a decade.

This was followed by subpoenas for the personal and office records of the three strongest supporters of the expansion, Supervisors Buster and Wilson and board Chairwoman Kay Ceniceros. A week later, subpoenas were issued for the records of Tavaglione and Mullen, who strongly opposed the expansion.

A knowledgeable county source said Tuesday that the FBI has also begun serving subpoenas on a variety of professional staff members.

“Exactly what they’re after is anyone’s guess,” the source said.


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