Down the Drain

For 14 years, Tom Sullivan has been smelling a rat at the Metropolitan Sewer District. It may not be just his imagination.

"You have to realize that I've irritated a lot of big contractors around town," says Tom Sullivan. "There are a lot of people who would not feel bad if I got run over by a truck, let me put it that way. I get a lot more scrutiny than most people get. Like I say, if I didn't pay my taxes on time or something like that, they would be on me."

A source once told him he could end up at the bottom of the river in concrete tennis shoes if he didn't stop asking the right people the wrong questions about the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District and how it spends its money. In Sullivan's view, the $239.1 million-budget public agency and its benefactors -- politicians, developers, corporate executives, contractors and engineering firms -- are all part of the problem. He has proclaimed the agency to be corrupt and called for the resignation of its board of trustees.

If anything, Sullivan knows too much. Take, for instance, the union shop steward who was providing him with information on MSD officials. The guy was set up by another employee, says Sullivan, and fired after videocameras caught him rummaging through district files. The terminated whistle-blower had tipped Sullivan that high-ranking MSD officers weren't paying their full share of the city's 1 percent earnings tax. Did Channel 5 lead with this story on the 10 o'clock news? No way. A guy loses his job trying to do the right thing. Nobody hears about it. But Sullivan knows. And it becomes part of who he is.

MSD spokesman Terry Briggs: "(Sullivan) doesn't understand why we contract out, why we use some of the engineering firms. He never seems to get that. He always hammers on that issue."
Jennifer Silverberg
MSD spokesman Terry Briggs: "(Sullivan) doesn't understand why we contract out, why we use some of the engineering firms. He never seems to get that. He always hammers on that issue."

He suspects MSD has been keeping tabs on him for years, gathering intelligence and monitoring his activities. He may not be under direct surveillance, but they know where he lives. They know about the small advertising firm he runs in Clayton, and they know something about his past political associations.

They learn about him in unusual ways. There's the phone call he got at home, for instance, when he was opposing an MSD-favored ballot proposal some years ago. The caller wanted to know whether he was a paid consultant or a volunteer for the Citizens Committee on MSD, a group opposing the measure. She expressed interest in joining the group and asked for other details about the organization. Sullivan later accused MSD of keeping an "enemies list" and said the phone caller worked at the district's PR firm.

Deception, intrigue -- it's all part of the landscape that Sullivan visits on a daily basis. His world is made up of the finest of details, which are seared into his brain. He totes this stuff around with him every day in his head like some other Joe might stash a bowling ball in the trunk of his car.

It's a weight he has been carrying for the last 14 years, analyzing every aspect of MSD's operations, reading the agency's management audits from cover to cover, using public documents and anonymous sources inside the district to reveal questionable practices, writing streams of letters to newspapers, calling for investigations and resignations, faxing press releases, petitioning public officials, filing memoranda, making provocative public statements. He thinks the sewer district stinks and that the foul odor comes at substantial public expense.

"They constantly are trying to weasel the ratepayers and the public," he says. "They waste money at such a phenomenal rate. It's almost nonstop."

The ceaseless nature of his own criticism leads his staunchest adversaries to marvel at his tenacity and wonder where he finds the time to constantly badger them. But some of his supporters in the public and private sectors ponder whether his confrontational style does more damage than good. One normally mild-mannered St. Louis County official thinks the MSD critic is deranged, then confesses to fantasizing about urinating on Sullivan's front lawn.

Sullivan is used to people loathing him, and he presumes that MSD maintains a dossier with his name on it. Terry Briggs, the agency spokesman whom Sullivan calls the "director of public deception," says the district does have a file on him but that it contains only correspondence: "He sends in roughly a letter or two a week requesting information. We keep those on file, and our response to it. But that's about it."

MSD is perhaps the most complicated public institution in the state of Missouri.

It is neither a traditional public agency nor a private utility, instead functioning as a separate government entity with all the powers usually vested in a city or county. The district has the power to levy taxes, set user fees and take property through eminent domain. In this sense, it is a virtual underground realm, operating far from the public light.

Voters approved the formation of the district in 1954. The district serves five separate watersheds within a 600-square-mile area, taking in all of the city of St. Louis and 80 percent of St. Louis County, or about 1.4 million people. Its jurisdiction overlaps 92 municipalities, and its responsibilities include the management of both sewage and stormwater. MSD provides service to 427,577 ratepayers, operates 10 treatment facilities and maintains more than 8,500 miles of sewer lines. It employs more than 950 people and will spend an estimated $239.1 million this year.

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