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ZURIK: Internal emails show questionable trash collection bidding process

Published: May. 10, 2022 at 10:05 PM CDT|Updated: May. 10, 2022 at 10:34 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A series of emails uncovered by FOX 8 reveal what two local professors believe is a rigged public bid.

The emails show internal discussions that one expert says made it too easy for one company to receive taxpayer dollars.

“You hear about backroom deals in government, but it’s very rare that you actually have a paper trail proving that,” said Dr. Robert Collins, a professor of public policy at Dillard University.

In 2020, the Krewe of Isis returned to the city of Kenner. The city needed a team of workers to clean up behind the 17-float parade.

Emails show in January of that year, Chad Pitfield, who oversaw Kenner’s garbage collection, started to solicit bids. He reached out to River Parish Disposal and Ramelli Waste. At the time, Ramelli was the city’s garbage collector, and on Jan. 6, the company sent Pitfield a quote. The company’s projected total cost for cleanup was $16,000.

During the same month, Kenner started having behind-the-scenes meetings with another garbage collector, IV Waste, looking to switch companies for its residential pickup.

FOX 8 uncovered emails showing on Jan. 21, Pitfield forwarded Ramelli’s bid for the parade cleanup to the owner of IV Waste, Sidney Torres.

Just over a week later, IV Waste sent its bid for the cleanup work, which came in $750 lower than Ramelli’s bid. Kenner and Pitfield then awarded IV Waste the work.

“This just smacks of the self-dealing relationship between the administration in Kenner and Torres,” said Joel Friedman, a law professor at Tulane University.

Kenner eventually sent Ramelli an email thanking the company for submitting a bid but saying another vendor had been chosen and the city looked forward to further participation in the Kenner procurement actions.

Collins says this shows vendors in Kenner don’t know if they’re getting a fair chance when bidding.

“Anybody seeing this would be like, ‘wait a minute, why should I submit a bid at all in Kenner? If they’re just going to take my bid, you know, give it to the to the person that they really want? And that person is just going to underbid me. And then they’re going to pretend like it was an open and fair and equitable process, when in reality, they’re just sharing my confidential bid with another competitor, so that he can undercut me.’ I mean … it doesn’t really make any sense … there’s no basic sense of fairness here,” said Collins.

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Pitfield doesn’t work for Kenner anymore. He was fired after FOX 8 investigations raised questions about the disaster pay he collected after Ida, and whether he was double-dipping while also working as a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office reserve deputy. An investigation also revealed he might have falsified documents to cover up double-dipping.

FOX 8′s prior investigations also revealed Pitfield had an IV Waste email address, and set up the company’s social media accounts while approving the company’s invoices to the City of Kenner.

Kenner didn’t use a formal bidding process for the Isis Parade cleanup. Sources tell FOX 8 Pitfield called some vendors and Kenner selected IV Waste. According to Collins, that’s not the way local governments typically handle this type of work.

“As we’ve seen time and time again in Kenner, there’s no real transparency. There’s no real RFP (request for proposals). They don’t really follow standard best practices that we see in cities all over the nation,” said Collins.

IV Waste issued a statement to FOX 8 calling allegations that it was provided Ramelli’s proposal to undercut that proposal “patently false.” It goes on to say, “Ramelli’s higher proposal was for less equipment and less workers. IV Waste offered the use of its 3-wheel street sweeper, an item IV Waste was told was critical to the needs of its customer. The purpose of this project was to sweep the streets after the parade. Ramelli either chose not to provide this sweeper or did not have it to offer.”

However, records show Kenner paid another company, Elgin Sweeping Services, $9,000 for providing that service after the parade.

You can read IV Waste’s entire statement here:

Collins says leaking internal documents to a competitor is far from best practice. While the project was small and included an informal bidding process, Collins and Friedman say it allowed a contractor that was well-liked by the city to leapfrog a competitor for public dollars.

“Of course, it’s bid-rigging. If you’re going to bid something, then you bid it. You don’t give inside information to one of the bidders. It’s then not competitive, and bids are supposed to be competitive,” Friedman says.

The email from Pitfield to IV Waste noted that Deputy CAO (Chief Administrative Officer) Leigh Roussel instructed Pitfield to send the email. Roussel says she doesn’t recall telling Pitfield to do that. Kenner City Government has refused to comment on anything related to IV Waste citing pending litigation involving its decision to switch its residential garbage contract from Ramelli to IV Waste.

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