Authorities in Douglas County, Nebraska, have been investigating a potential weight scheme at the Pheasant Point Landfill.
As reported by the Lincoln Journal Star, five employees for the county who worked in the landfill’s weighhouse and two business owners who dumped refuse there have been charged with conspiracy to commit theft in a scheme that could date back decades.
In the scheme, authorities allege, employees at the landfill's weighhouse would decrease the weight of a dump truck as it arrived at the landfill so the dump truck’s owner would have to pay the bare minimum for dumping tons of trash.
The process included employees signaling who got the reduced dump fees by calling out, “He’s my guy.” Many of those would get a $20 or $26 flat fee instead of the hundreds of dollars they should have paid. In return, the Journal Star reports the dump trucks’ owners would pay the weighhouse employees in cash, gift cards and even hams.
One employee allegedly stole enough to pay nearly $8,000 in cash for a 2015 Ford Fusion.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office says it is unclear how much money has been stolen in total, but an analyst estimated that the landfill contractor lost $350,000 over the past three years.
Some employees told sheriff’s investigators that grifting has been going on since 1995. The statute of limitations for felony theft is three years.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said he expects more to come out of the investigation. “There’s still work being done to put together who all is involved and exactly how much money was being skimmed off,” Kleine told the Journal Star. “But we needed to get this going. The message needs to be sent that this is not something that can be tolerated in any way, shape or form.”
Some of the charged landfill personnel were working there up until last week. Others were retired. The employees charged with conspiracy to commit theft are: James E. Sudyka, 66; Mark Huntley, 68; Mark Helmberger, 53; Anahi Lara, 24; and Suzanne Swanson, 36.
Business owners who are accused in the theft conspiracy include Gary Cooper, 63, owner of Clean Up Containers, and Hector Flores, 42, owner of Hector Flores Roofing.
The scheme first began to unravel on Nov. 12, when Kent Holmes, supervisor of Douglas County Environmental Services, called the Sheriff’s Office to report that employees were failing to properly weigh all vehicles entering and leaving. Holmes told the Sheriff’s Office he became aware of the matter when Waste Management (WM) sent three weighhouse employees home on suspicion of theft in October, which included Sudyka, Lara and Swanson.
According to the Journal Star, some employees had “worked out a system where they would manually adjust the computer that recorded the weights of incoming vehicles, decreasing them by tons.” As the now-emptied vehicles exited the landfill, the system would record that they owed nothing, or only the bare minimum.
In some cases, the trucks were allowed to drive past the scale without weighing.
An internal investigation by WM analyzed activity at the weighhouse from June 5 to Aug. 20. During those 12 weeks, the auditor compared the receipts to video taken at the weighhouse and found that five employees lowered Cooper’s Cleanup Containers’ dump fees 336 times.
When confronted by a sheriff’s deputy about his container company receiving a benefit, Cooper said that he knew for a year or two that he was receiving a discount. Deputies said Cooper told them “he did not ask for this discount, but knew it was happening.” Sheriff’s deputies said the scheme saved Cooper $38,000 a year.
Helmberger told deputies that “discounts had been given to some individuals” since he began working at the landfill in 2007. He alleged that Sudyka “would frequently leave amounts of cash between $17 and $100 lying out” in the back room.
“Helmberger would then go into the back room and take that money, which he described as a ‘tip,’” the affidavit says.
In such a cash-heavy business, the county will have to increase its controls and its supervision to prevent future theft, Kleine told the Journal Star.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the landfill weighhouse personnel were employed by Waste Management. The accused personnel are employees for Douglas County.