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Inglewood mayor's role in $100-million trash hauling pact is questioned

Inglewood mayor's role in $100-million trash hauling pact is questioned
Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts at a City Council meeting last year. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

When Inglewood’s city council approved a $100-million waste-collection contract in 2012, the job went not to the low bidder but to another company with higher fees — and a link to Mayor James Butts Jr.

Consolidated Disposal Services landed the 10-year contract that June, about three months after it hired the mayor’s brother, Michael Butts, as a $72,000-a-year operations manager.

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The timing was no coincidence, according to a previously undisclosed complaint filed that year with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. The complaint alleged that “as a condition for his support,” the mayor asked bidders to hire his unemployed brother.

One of the bidders confirmed that account.

“I don’t remember the exact language, but the context was, ‘It would be favorable for you if you could find my brother a job,’” Gary Clifford, executive vice president at Athens Services, the low bidder, said in an interview.

“Put it this way,” Clifford said. “We didn’t hire his brother, and we didn’t get the contract. The company that hired his brother got the contract. And they were $10 million more than us.”

The deal was not only lucrative for Consolidated Disposal Services, but consequential for Inglewood residents and businesses: Their refuse-collection rates are tied to the agreement for a decade, with more than four years to go.

Mayor Butts denied he asked any of the bidders to hire his brother and abstained from the final vote on the contract.

“There is nothing to this .… I didn’t approach anyone,” he said, then abruptly ended a telephone interview. In a subsequent email exchange, he said his brother’s employment by Consolidated was unrelated to the company’s winning bid.

“My brother's hiring had no bearing on the award of the contract,” Butts said.

Both the district attorney and the FBI investigated the garbage contract, according to Clifford and another potential witness, but no charges were filed. The D.A.’s office confirmed the investigation, but said it could not locate its case file. A spokeswoman for the FBI said she could neither confirm nor deny an investigation.

James Castro, who handled the contract bid for Consolidated Disposal Services, referred an interview request to Jennifer Eldridge, a spokeswoman for Republic Services, its parent company. She acknowledged The Times’ emailed questions but did not respond to them or to a subsequent series of emails and voice messages.

Michael Butts still works for Consolidated, in its Gardena office, according to a company employee in Inglewood. He did not respond to phone messages or to interview requests made through Eldridge and his brother.

Details of his employment were included in his May 2013 bankruptcy protection filing, in which he stated that the company paid him just under $6,000 a month.

Without commenting specifically on Butts’ alleged actions, two legal experts told The Times that an elected official who solicited a job for a close relative in exchange for his support of a contract bid would have a conflict of interest.

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“Public officials are absolutely required to be in those jobs for the interest of the public, not the interest of lining their pockets or those of their families,” said Ann Ravel, former head of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission. “It would be inappropriate for a mayor to even address the contractors in that way and discuss this with them.”

Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and government ethics specialist, agreed.

“I think you could certainly say that it’s a misuse of office, that it is an improper action,” she said.

Inglewood received three responsive bids for the contract, city records show. James Butts participated in preliminary votes on the contract, including approving exclusive negotiations with Consolidated. He abstained from the final vote, on June 5, 2012, in which the council approved the contract 3-1.

In his email to The Times, the mayor said he sat out the final vote because his brother worked for Consolidated.

“My brother was an employee of one of the bidders at the time of the vote to award, and I abstained because of the optics of the situation,” Butts said.

To avoid a conflict of interest in that situation, Levinson said, the mayor should have recused himself from all actions on the contract negotiations, not just the final vote.

Butts’ alleged conflict was the subject of a complaint letter sent to the district attorney’s public integrity division in July 2012 by Inglewood City Council member Judy Dunlap, who cast the lone no vote on the contract.

The complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, alleged that James Butts had approached executives at two bidders with an offer of support in exchange for a job for his brother.

Clifford, from Athens Services, was one of the two bidders named in the letter and he told The Times that Butts had made the offer to him in a face-to-face conversation at a waste-handling facility.

The other, Doug Corcoran of Waste Management, said the mayor did not come to him with such an offer. But he knew that Michael Butts needed a job, he said, and he met with him to discuss it.

“I became aware of it through somebody else,” said Corcoran, who interviewed Michael Butts but did not hire him. “We talked. We did not have a fit for him.”

Dunlap’s complaint also contended that Inglewood residents would pay substantially more for Consolidated’s trash services than Athens’.

“These additional fees amount to approximately $25 [million] to $30 million dollars extra over the life of the contract,” she wrote. “This is unconscionable!”

Dunlap, a 20-year member of the council, lost her seat in a June 2013 election and has since moved out of state. She could not be reached for comment.

Butts disputed that Inglewood would have fared better with Athens.

“I personally did not believe that their bid could be relied upon,” he said. “Further, Consolidated employees were represented by a union paying competitive wages while Athens was not.”

It is unclear how aggressively the D.A.’s public integrity division, which investigates complaints of official corruption, pursued Dunlap’s allegations.

Several people contacted by the The Times, including Clifford, said they were interviewed by district attorney’s investigators about the contract. Clifford and another potential witness said they also were visited later by FBI agents.

In response to The Times’ public records request, the district attorney’s office confirmed that it received Dunlap’s complaint on July 31, 2012. But prosecutors said they were unable to find the case file and could provide only “limited information” on the investigation, said Michele Gilmer, assistant head deputy district attorney.

“The matter was investigated and on March 6, 2013, closed,” Gilmer wrote in a letter to The Times.

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