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.

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"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.

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.

Under its charter, MSD's six-member board of trustees consists of three representatives appointed by the mayor of St. Louis and an equal number chosen by the St. Louis County executive. The appointments are not approved by any elected body; there are no confirmation hearings, and no means of public participation in the selection process.

Sullivan's latest crusade targets MSD's proposed charter change, Proposition MSD1, which is to appear on the Nov. 7 ballot. If approved by voters, MSD says, the proposed changes in the charter would promote more public accountability -- for example, by establishing a rate commission to review decisions and requiring a five-year management audit. But, says Sullivan, the primary objective of the ballot proposal is to gain approval for the issuance of district-wide revenue bonds. It may seem an arcane matter, but passage of the proposition could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in rate increases in future years. Currently ratepayers don't foot the bill for sewer improvements from which they derive no direct benefit, a safeguard stretching back to the inception of the district that was put in place to protect city dwellers from having to subsidize suburban development. Similar revenue-bond proposals have failed to meet voter approval in the past or have been challenged successfully in the courts. MSD argues that it needs the authority to issue the bonds so it can continue to raise enough money to protect public health and safety and the environment.

The additional funding may be needed, but there's a smarter and cheaper alternative, Sullivan says. Instead of revenue bonds, he favors tacking on a surcharge to pay for needed infrastructure improvements, as was done in 1988, when ratepayers agreed to temporarily increase their monthly bills by $6.50 to pay for more than $400 million worth of sewer projects. The "pay-as-you-go" method, says Sullivan, is preferable because it avoids steep interest rates that run up costs by hundreds of millions of dollars.

But Sullivan wasn't subtle in pitching his solution. In a screed submitted to the MSD trustees last month, he lambasted the agency for having the audacity to put the revenue-bond issue back on the ballot after an almost identical proposal was turned down by voters more than a decade ago. He predicts that voters will nix it again. "Since this is the worst board of trustees MSD has probably ever had, and the district is probably as corrupt as it has ever been, your chances are even slimmer," he wrote.

But it isn't just MSD, however, that wants the proposition approved. The agency has corporations promoting the ballot measure, corporations that happen to be among MSD's largest contractors and customers. Citizens for Clean Water (CCW), the group formed last month to support the revenue-bond proposal, can hardly be considered a grassroots organization. And the environmental advocacy denoted in its title is dubious as well, says Sullivan. The campaign committee is fronted by two trustworthy names: Peter Raven, head of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Nancy Bower of the League of Women Voters. A closer look at the operation and financing of the group reveals some other notables. CCW is being run by the PR firm of Angelides, Rainford and Associates and has a budget of almost $500,000, says Briggs. Its treasurer, Glenn Brady, is an accountant for PricewaterhouseCoopers. Civic Progress, which represents CEOs of St. Louis' largest corporations, has ponied up $150,000 for the effort. Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., one of Civic Progress' leading members, is MSD's biggest customer, discharging about 5 percent of the wastewater treated by the district. A-B's annual sewer bill runs about $6 million, Briggs says. Other companies and unions that already profit from MSD work are expected to put up the rest of the money for the campaign.

Although MSD is legally barred from promoting ballot measures, it sees no problem in helping the corporate campaign promoting it. "The campaign committee asked, and we provided them with businesses that do business with MSD, like engineering firms, contractors, suppliers and some of the unions," Briggs says. The MSD spokesman says the Laborers International Union will likely be solicited for a donation because its members benefit directly from construction projects. The contractors MSD suggested be solicited by CCW include Insituform Technologies Inc., Affholder Inc., Bates Utility Co. Inc., Karsten Equipment Co., J.S. Alberici Construction Co. and McCarthy Cos. Among engineering firms, Sverdrup Corp., Horner & Shifrin Inc. and CH2M Hill Inc. will most likely help fill CCW's coffers. The organization's only campaign-finance report is not due until a week before the election.

Passage of the proposed charter change, says Sullivan, would provide a secure source of profits for these companies well into the 21st century. "What they want to do is finance billions of dollars of improvements via revenue bonds," he says.

Briggs, on the other hand, compares the issuance of revenue bonds to a homeowner's mortgage: "It's somewhat similar to when you buy your house," he says. "You don't have all the money, usually, up front, unless you're pretty wealthy, to plop down $200,000 or $50,000 on a house, so you take out a mortgage and pay it off in 20 years. Bonds are the same way. For a public agency like us or anybody -- a fire district, a school district, whatever -- they like to stretch out payments over a longer period of time, primarily because you have less rate impact on your customers. Now, the flip side of it, though, is, you do pay interest with it." By contrast, Briggs says, the pay-as-you-go method causes "rate shock" because it immediately results in increased bills for MSD's customers.

The missive Sullivan sent the trustees last month also provides a litany of what Sullivan believes are the district's past transgressions, which he vows to trot out before Election Day, including the following: holding onto the $40 million MSD illegally took from taxpayers in 1992, a dispute the district recently settled out of court; the collection of more than $600 million through rate increases imposed without voter approval, which was later ruled legal; and handing out about $150 million in no-bid consulting contracts since 1993. It's the last issue that raises Sullivan's ire the most.

In a nutshell, he asserts that instead of using its in-house engineering department to do the lion's share of the work, the district hires a stable of outside engineering firms without a formal bidding process. The usual bevy of contractors sidles up to the trough, Sullivan says, and he has watched public funds divided up among the same companies year after year, with no accountability. The same services could have been provided more economically by MSD's own engineers, he says. From 1993-98, the district awarded 260 consulting contracts totaling almost $82 million, according to MSD's 1999 management audit. Divisions of Sverdrup Engineering led the pack, raking in more than $17.5 million. Horner & Shifrin received more than $10 million.

"(Sullivan) doesn't understand why we contract out, why we use some of the engineering firms," says Briggs. "We try to explain to him that we can't hire an engineer who is an expert in every single area, so instead of doing that and having him on board, we contract it out. We think it's more effective and efficient to ratepayers to contract that out rather than hire a bunch of people, because once you hire them, it's just not their salaries. It's their benefits and everything else. He never seems to get that. He always hammers on that issue."

To Sullivan, the numbers speak for themselves. MSD's own engineering department, which includes 142 positions, cost $10.3 million last year. During the same time, MSD spent $18.7 million on outside engineers.

Late last year, Sullivan requested that St. Louis Circuit Attorney Dee Joyce-Hayes remove the entire six-member MSD board of trustees for neglect of duty. He charged, among other things, that the trustees make decisions behind closed doors, in violation of the state's Sunshine Law. "I based it on a court decision from 1995, which set new standards for neglect of duty," Sullivan says. "I think when you continually violate the Sunshine Law, when you continually violate campaign-finance-disclosure law, when you continually spend public money to support a ballot proposal, when you continually violate your own charter, when you have board members violating anybody's code of ethics, I think it's time that you consider getting rid of them."

Eight months after Sullivan's request, Joyce-Hayes decided the appropriate response would be to instruct the trustees on how to comply with the Sunshine Law rather than empanel a grand jury to investigate possible violations of the law. At the board's June meeting, two assistant circuit attorneys gave the trustees a lesson on how to obey the law.

Sullivan says Joyce-Hayes' actions were too little, too late. "They don't need anybody to explain the law to them," he says. "They've got tons of lawyers to try and figure out ways around the law. It's not like this is some fire district out in rural Missouri that doesn't understand what the law is."

Joyce-Hayes says she never determined whether there was any substance to Sullivan's claims. "I didn't choose to handle it in a criminal investigation," she says. "I don't have the kind of resources in this office to undertake that kind of investigation. You need to appreciate that Mr. Sullivan is an archenemy of MSD. They don't breathe but that he takes exception, rightly or wrongly -- I'm not saying one way or the other. I've heard from him over eight years very frequently about various allegations concerning MSD. I could make a career out of MSD for Mr. Sullivan. My experience with Mr. Sullivan is that there is at least a kernel of accuracy in everything that he has said, but it's not always something that's appropriate for a criminal approach."

The appointment of Willie Horton as executive director of the district in September 1999 has only worsened matters, Sullivan says: "He violates the Sunshine Law and doesn't see anything wrong with that. He's awful."

Sullivan' view is not shared by the MSD trustees, who approved a 5 percent pay increase for Horton last week. The executive director now receives an annual salary of $183,750, making him one of the highest-paid public officials in the state. Horton says he is aware of Sullivan and his accusations but declines to comment on them other than to say that the district honors the Sunshine Law.

Last November, Sullivan also asked the circuit attorney to look into what he believes is an illegal appropriation of $6 million in additional funds to extend the Skinker-McCausland tunnel project without seeking further contract bids. In four years, the cost of the project jumped from $27.4 million to $43.1 million. Joyce-Hayes declined to investigate the case and instead passed Sullivan's accusations to state Auditor Claire McCaskill. A spokesman for McCaskill says she can't initiate an audit without a public petition drive or authorization from the governor.

Sullivan contends that the private contractors who profited from the $6 million extension project are politically connected or have business ties to MSD trustees. Affholder Inc. is a prime example, he says.

MSD awarded the Skinker-McCausland tunnel project to Affholder, its top construction contractor, in late 1996. Affholder's parent company, Insituform, of Chesterfield, owns a patented process that allows it to rehabilitate sewer lines without digging trenches. Together, the two companies received a total of more than $90 million in MSD construction contracts between 1993 and 1998, according to the district's management audit. Because Insituform owns the necessary proprietary technology, it has been one of the main beneficiaries of MSD's no-bid emergency-repair contracts, too.

Sullivan sees a correlation between the contracts awarded and the fact that the contractor spends money at one MSD trustee's business. Insituform, in fact, has bought advertisements in the St. Louis Sentinel, a small-circulation black weekly where MSD Trustee Michael C. Williams is employed as associate publisher and editor. "Mike Williams is probably the sleaziest guy that's ever been on the MSD board, bar none," says Sullivan. "Insituform buys full-page ads in his newspaper. His newspaper does business with the district. He has a huge conflict of interest."

Williams could not be reached for comment. He has defended his position in the past by saying he has no ownership interest in the Sentinel. Briggs asserts that Insituform's business decisions aren't within MSD's jurisdictional control and adds that Sullivan's claims appear to be unfounded: "If they want to take ads out in the Sentinel, we can't stop them. Does it influence Mike Williams? I would not say that is the case. Dee (Joyce-Hayes) hasn't filed anything, I guess, because she's looked at Tom's allegations and dismissed them."

Williams was first appointed by former St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.; Mayor Clarence Harmon reappointed him despite a formal complaint Sullivan filed against the trustee with the state Ethics Commission in 1996. Sullivan alleged then that Williams had voted to approve MSD ads in the Sentinel that cost more than $5,000. "The Ethics Commission gave it enough credibility to have it investigated and brought in a (retired) judge from outstate Missouri," Sullivan says. The MSD critic adds that the jurist recommended Williams' removal from the board but notes that the Ethics Commission failed to honor the recommendation. A spokesman for the Ethics Commission tells The Riverfront Times that judges' decisions are sealed unless the agency takes disciplinary action. In Williams' case, the Ethics Commission chose not to take such action.

Legal or illegal, the lack of bidding on the tunnel extension is just one of MSD's many questionable practices, Sullivan says. Cost overruns and no-bid consulting contracts have already cost ratepayers more than $100 million in recent years, he says. He points to the doubling of the estimated cost for a proposed sewer plant in South St. Louis County, now estimated at $100 million, as the latest example of MSD's financial mismanagement.

In his most recent dispatch to the circuit attorney, Sullivan asked for an investigation into an MSD land deal in South County. The district sold 11 acres of property near Interstate 270 and Dougherty Ferry Road in 1996 for $512,000. After the new owner couldn't sell the property because it was contaminated, the MSD tentatively approved the repurchase of the parcel for $725,000 earlier this summer. But after Sullivan informed the local broadcast media and the story was aired, the trustees voted unanimously last week not to buy back the land.

Tom Sullivan has been dogging MSD since 1986, citing state laws and district ordinances, whenever he feels the agency has violated its statutory authority. With other activists gone from the scene, he, in many ways, is fighting a one-man crusade. Sparring with MSD has become his way of life, a calling, maybe even an obsession. When he delivers arguments before monthly board meetings nowadays, Sullivan wears a blue blazer, khaki pants, a white shirt and a tie. Eyeglasses and a receding hairline add to his professorial appearance. Whereas other residents plead with the board of trustees, Sullivan lectures them. They are his delinquent students, breaking the rules with impunity. He speaks with moral authority, and his scoldings are always well reasoned.

But Sullivan's unrelenting attacks, at times, seem to defy reason simply because they never stop. He never takes a hiatus. Executive directors come and go; trustees leave. Sullivan remains, ever vigilant.

The St. Louis County official who dreams of taking a leak on Sullivan's front lawn thinks the MSD critic is a paranoid conspiracy theorist and a lonely man, someone with nothing better to do than harass public officials. Cost overruns are routine, the official says. Sewer improvements cost lots of money. Sullivan's accusations may occasionally be accurate, he admits, but there's nothing sinister about MSD's operations. The guy should get a life.

"I get accused of everything. I've been a front man for so many people I can't even count them," responds Sullivan, who turned 50 this summer. "(Former St. Louis County Executive) Gene McNary said once that I was just trying to drum up clients for my business. None of it's true. Everybody says you should get involved. So what do you do? You get involved, and all of a sudden you're a front man, you just want to see your name in the paper. People want to put all sorts of motives to it that I don't have. I'm just a citizen who takes part in government. If someone else was doing it, I would spend time on other things. Even though I do take positions, my main position is really letting people know what's going on. For some reason, people find it mystifying."

Asked about his personal life, Sullivan responds sarcastically: "It's, like, who cares? That's my feeling. Most people don't even know me, so who cares? What's your favorite color? If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" In other words, let's cut the crap and talk politics.

There is more to Sullivan, though, than just a signature attached to the screeds he fires off to public officials and local newspapers.

He leases space in an aging office building on Central Avenue in downtown Clayton and walks four blocks to avoid the monthly parking fee. He refers to himself as an "independent Democrat." Sullivan Advertising, his small firm, does local political-campaign work. He also handles some private accounts. One of the highlights of his career came when he photographed Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White for Spring Air Mattress Co. He has also snapped publicity shots of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Sophia Loren.

But the ad business doesn't completely pay the rent nowadays, so Sullivan supplements his income by working at an office-supply store three or four days a week. He drives an older-model Ford Escort. Friend Lewis Green, a lawyer, says that when Sullivan once couldn't afford to get his car repaired. It was probably a welcome relief for some public officials.

"I don't think you could find a government bureaucrat anywhere that's fond of him," says Green. The lawyer, who has been locking horns with MSD since 1983, admits that even his actions have garnered Sullivan's disapproval. Green sued MSD in 1992 for illegally overcharging ratepayers $40 million and later amended the case into a class-action suit. After years of haggling, the attorney eventually agreed to accept a $30 million settlement. Sullivan was not pleased. "He blasted the hell out of my settlement," Green says. "He's been complaining about it ever since publicly. He thought they ought to give up the whole $40 million and they ought to (pay) interest." Sullivan is not alone on that point. A group of large corporations, including Emerson Electric, BJC Health Systems, Daimler-Chrysler and Unity Health Care have gone to court to try and stop the settlement.

Despite their strong disagreement, Green says Sullivan is "still a great friend of mine. We talk about things all the time."

Those discussions, however, are, for the most part, limited to MSD or other political issues. Green knows little about Sullivan's personal life." You would think that there must be a tavern where he goes and drinks a beer with a friend," Green says, "but I don't know where it is."

It's Pat's in Dogtown, which has an old neon Budweiser sign out front and once upon a time enshrined FDR's photograph behind the bar. Over a beer and a plate of fried chicken, Sullivan compares his obsession with MSD to a writer's compulsion. "It's like, why does somebody write, you know? You write a magazine article that's 1,000 words, and the next thing you know, it goes on," he says. "I've been involved in various government things, and (MSD) is one that I just sort of stuck onto and just got more and more involved."

Sullivan also patronizes the Majestic Restaurant, a Greek-owned diner in the Central West End, where he sometimes eats breakfast. He likes classical music and occasionally attends St. Louis Symphony concerts, though the ticket prices are a little too steep for his pocketbook. He graduated from McBride High School and attended the University of Missouri-St. Louis but dropped out because of the foreign-language requirement, he says.

His fixation on MSD began in 1986, when he joined a petition drive to have the district audited by the state. An organizer for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment led that successful campaign. Around this time, Sullivan met Wilhelmenia "Billie" Roberts, the local dean of old-school liberal activists, who became his close friend and mentor.

Roberts is hesitant to talk about her old friend and ally, as if to do so would be a betrayal of confidence. They fought together a long time, longer than she can sometimes now remember. In sharing an enemy, the two were like foot soldiers, comrades in an undeclared war. That the battles have often gone unrecognized makes their bond that much closer. As with war veterans, an unspoken pact exists, a connection, something larger than either of them. So when she talks about Sullivan, Roberts speaks in almost reverential tones, measuring her words carefully, pausing from time to time to collect her thoughts.

"Tom is very kind. Tom is concerned about my husband. He comes to visit me and brings nice things," she says. "But his personal life, he wouldn't want anyone to be writing about in the paper." A nurse opens the door, briefly interrupting Roberts' recollections. Her small room at the Altenheim nursing home on South Broadway is crowded with a bed and dresser, leaving 90-year-old Roberts barely enough space in which to steer her wheelchair. Her husband, Ted, who lives upstairs, has cancer. Because of his declining health and her own frail condition, she has retired from the social activism that kept her busy over the last several decades.

Voting was never enough for Roberts. She wrote letters, attended public meetings, initiated petition drives, met with elected and regulatory officials and, as a last resort, helped file lawsuits. Typically such watchdogs organize into coalitions or ad hoc committees. But Roberts was a little different. Though she forged countless alliances, for the most part she operated alone. Her solo status helped protect her integrity and prevented her positions from being compromised. During the legislative session, she drove to Jefferson City on Sunday evenings and checked into a small hotel a couple blocks from the Capitol. Roberts thoroughly prepared herself by studying bills in advance and, in some instances, helped write or revise the legislation.

When the sewers in her Webster Groves neighborhood started clogging in the 1980s, the citizen lobbyist directed her attention to MSD, and this is when she first crossed paths with Sullivan. The two shared a dislike of the district's policies, and they made a habit of expressing their dissatisfaction at monthly board meetings. Roberts was impressed both by Sullivan's zeal and his ability to articulate the issues. But she worried that her young protégé sometimes sabotaged his own efforts by going off half-cocked. "I said, 'Tom, don't talk about the law until you understand it,'" Roberts recalls. "I said, 'There's a law library over here in Clayton. You can go over there and start reading the law.' By golly, he did.

"Tom is an extremely smart young man," Roberts says. "He's really a many-faceted person. Not only is he a fighter against things like MSD, but he's a lover of beauty. Just out of the clear blue sky one time, Tom Sullivan brought us the most exquisite book that he saw in a little store in Clayton. It is so beautiful -- very little text, but page after page of colors."

Roberts then wishes she hadn't revealed so much about her friend. Exposing MSD's misguided decisions is much more important than Sullivan's personal traits, she says. On that point, the elder and her apprentice are kindred spirits.

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