« Ind. Courts - "Life, Death and Insurance: Indiana's $15 Million Mystery " | Main | Ind. Law - "Hendricks sheriff to host sexting forum tonight" »

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ind. Law - "The politics of trash" in Lake County

A long, long story today in the NWI Times, reported by March Chase. Some quotes:

Enmeshed in the process of bringing a trash-to-ethanol facility to Lake County is a tangled web of political and business connections linking what some describe as a political rainmaker, top county government officials and a multistate law firm.

The law firm, which was the longtime legal counsel of the winning private bidder set to build and operate the plant, also represented the county waste management board when it approved the contract to build what is to be a privately run by publicly owned facility.

Political proponents of the proposed biorefinery hail the plan as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to landfilling Lake County's trash.

Local government officials opposed to the plan believe the county is launching into a public-private partnership based on an unproven process not fully vetted by the people championing the plant.

Some political detractors of the plant, to which all municipal waste in the county would be routed, believe enough unanswered questions have existed throughout the process for the county to put the brakes on its partnership with Powers Energy One of Indiana LLC, the company set to build and operate what will become a taxpayer-owned facility in Schneider.

But backers of the concept said the private operation and financing ensure taxpayers will not be financially liable if the trash-to-ethanol business fails. Once made aware of a business connection between the political insider and the company set to build and operate the plant, government officials said they immediately demanded the company sever ties with the insider. * * *

Through months of committee meetings, presentations and debates on the trash proposals, the waste management district used the Indianapolis office of Barnes & Thornburg to help analyze the companies proposing to consolidate county trash processing.

Powers, the winning bidder, acknowledges that same law firm represented his business interests for about 18 years prior to making his Lake County trash processing bid, including work to incorporate his financial firm, World Net Capital 1 LLC.

Langbehn said the county used Barnes & Thornburg as an additional set of legal eyes to complement the waste district's own attorney, Clifford Duggan. The county also hired a Wisconsin-based engineering firm and a separate consultant to analyze the financial plans and proposals of the three bidding companies.

"We stayed away from any conflict that anybody might have by not hiring anybody locally who might lean towards different people," Langbehn said. "We told Earl (Powers) this had to be the most honest thing he has ever done because this is Lake County, Ind. We set the standards right away."

During his second presentation to the full Lake County Solid Waste Management District board, Powers divulged that Barnes & Thornburg had served as his attorney.

Because the relationship was disclosed, no state ethics rules were violated, said Seth Pruden, interim executive secretary for the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission.

Representatives from Barnes & Thornburg did not return calls from The Times seeking comment on the matter.

In a recent interview with The Times, Powers said he severed ties with the law firm six or seven months prior to signing a contract with the county. That contract was approved by the waste management district board in November 2008, more than a year after Powers disclosed his connection to Barnes & Thornburg to the board.

Both Powers and Langbehn deny that Powers Energy received any preferential treatment in the bidding process because of the connection between the district and Powers' company to Barnes & Thornburg.

Langbehn noted that Powers' specific attorney -- though within the same firm -- did not perform any of the legal work for the county.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 12, 2010 12:49 PM
Posted to Indiana economic development