I try to make readers laugh occasionally, and the Fish Garbage settlement this week provided fertilized ground bearing low-hanging fruit. Nothing like a poop reference to coax a cheap laugh.
But, it’s not funny. It cost Rapid City taxpayers $900,000, at least. In the end, manure proved Fish Garbage Service’s guilt in the Rapid City Landfill scandal. Well, there wasn’t much actual manure.
What the city’s lawyer, John Nooney, discovered once given access to landfill tickets obtained by Rapid City police detective Lt. Peter Ragnone in the criminal investigation was that the Fishes showed a pattern of misidentifying garbage first as “alternative cover,” (which can be dumped for free) and later as manure, which is also a free dump.
Between 2002 and 2005, Fish increased the number of loads it claimed as alternative cover by more than 600 percent. Fish, by the way, was dumping loads of garbage for free and charged its customers as if the city had been paid a legitimate dumping fee. Then — in 2006 — Jerry Wright, head of the landfill at the time, issued a memo prohibiting the disposal of alternative cover without specific approval by landfill management.
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After the memo, Fish's alternative cover dumps dropped from 1,322 in 2005 to 356 in 2007. Rather than just stop the illegal activity, the Fishes decided instead to begin misidentifying loads as manure, which they also dumped for free and also charged their customers as if they had had to pay.
As the number of loads of alternative cover decreased, the number of manure loads — well — piled up.
Skeptics (and those who believed the Fish attorneys’ smear campaign) might think, “They just hauled a lot of manure.” Actually, they didn’t. But they blew a lot of smoke until they knew they were caught.
Here are a few of the companies for whom Fish claimed they were hauling tons and tons of manure: Abby Carpet; Custer Lutheran Fellowship; Hills Roofing; Office of the State Engineer; Rapid City Public Schools and South Canyon Lutheran Church. The city found more than 70 such clients. The state Department of Game, Fish & Parks is the only one listed I can imagine ever disposed of a tablespoon of manure.
Faced with certain defeat — caught red-handed — the Fishes finally confessed to a fraud after their lawyers asked to be excused due to a conflict of interest that was only brought to light after the pattern of theft was undeniably proven. The Fishes will pay the city the cash they have. The remaining payments for Fish Garbage Service, from the company that bought it from the Fishes, will now go to the city.
It is unclear why States Attorney Glenn Brenner chose to drop criminal charges. He had the same information Nooney and Ragnone had. Perhaps he was unable to put the puzzle pieces together as adeptly as the civil suit team.
Nothing in the settlement prevents further criminal action against the company, but that seems unlikely.
I assume local citizens who may need an attorney in the future will remember certain Fish lawyers who chose a path of viciously attacking in the press the city officials who asked for, and conducted, the investigation. I think I know where the chips will fall for them.