Garbage In, Garbage Out
To the average fired employee, fighting a legal battle with the likes of multinational garbage conglomerate Browning-Ferris Industries might seem an exercise in hopelessness. Then again, when you've spent your vacations doing humanitarian work alongside Afghan freedom fighters waging war against the Soviet Union, perhaps the odds don't seem quite as long.
And with the latest trial date looming in October, things are actually looking up a bit for Kadir Mohmand, who has sued Houston-based BFI under the Texas whistle blower law. Mohmand contends he got the ax for complaining to BFI higher-ups about environmental problems and corruption in its Italian operations, where he worked at the time of his dismissal in July 1991.
At a hearing on August 27, state District Judge Russell Lloyd ruled in favor of Mohmand's request to depose Browning-Ferris board chairman William Ruckelshaus for a second time. Lloyd was left little choice after Mohmand's attorney, Valorie Davenport, presented new evidence in the case -- evidence that BFI executives, including Ruckelshaus, had previously claimed didn't exist.
A victory for Mohmand would be an embarrassment for BFI, which has taken pains to craft an image as an environmental good guy since Ruckelshaus took the reins in 1988. Known as "Mr. Clean," in part because of his two stints as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, first in the Nixon administration and later under President Reagan, Ruckelshaus was hired to scrub BFI's reputation, which had been consistently soiled by allegations of bid-rigging, toxic pollution, ties to the mob and antitrust practices. Since then, he's steered a more righteous path for BFI, even as the company continues its relentless push to dominate the waste-hauling and disposal business worldwide.
It's not easy to accomplish both of those goals simultaneously. The waste business has long been one of the most corrupt on the planet, and BFI's expansion strategy of swallowing existing companies that haul garbage or operate landfills leaves them vulnerable to any baggage those companies may have accumulated.
Nor does it help to have guys like Mohmand around. Born in Afghanistan and educated in Bulgaria, Mohmand (who speaks six languages) had developed an acute distaste for repression and corruption by the time he came to the United States in the 1980s. When BFI hired him in 1986 to monitor company landfills in Michigan, he relished the idea of contributing to his community by helping make landfills safer and more efficient. His initial task: to check the facilities for compliance with environmental regulations.
But according to court documents, when Mohmand reported potentially toxic leachate (water mixed with chemicals and other soluble material) leaking from a BFI landfill, his boss told him to forget about it. When he persisted, he was removed from that job and placed in charge of monitoring neighborhoods near the landfills for methane gas.
Again, Mohmand discovered breaches of safety -- in one case, he reported near-lethal levels of methane in a home near a landfill in Lyon township. This time, however, he sent a letter to the regional landfill manager, in addition to notifying his immediate supervisor. Mohmand says that this upset his boss, who ordered him not to communicate his findings to anyone else.
Perhaps wanting to avoid damaging revelations about conditions in Michigan, someone decided it was time for Mohmand to leave the state, and by February 1991, he was winging his way to Italy to take a newly created position as operations manager for BFI Italia. The job was so new, Mohmand said in a deposition, that no description of his responsibilities existed. No matter, said his boss, BFI Italia president John Taddonio. "I ask him what is my duty," Mohmand testified in his cracked English, "and he said just go sit there. Sit there and enjoy yourself and you are on your honeymoon."
But Mohmand hates being unproductive, so he took it upon himself to personally inspect some of BFI's Italian holdings, traveling from landfill to landfill and checking them for leaks and other mishaps.
What he found more than alarmed him. At a landfill near Turin, he saw raw leachate running into a nearby creek. Several dead cows lay on the banks, and signs of a fishkill were also visible. Downstream he saw Gypsies bathing in the water.
The landfill belonged to a BFI subsidiary, ISPA, one of several purchased by BFI to establish a beachhead in Italy. Mohmand discovered that other landfills had similar problems with leachate running unchecked into rivers and streams. But as in Michigan, his urging that action be taken immediately was rebuffed, this time by Taddonio. Mohmand wouldn't give up, however, mailing detailed accounts of his findings to Rod Proto, the head of BFI Europe, and William Ruckelshaus himself.
Pollution wasn't the only issue Mohmand addressed in his many complaints to his superiors. He relayed to Taddonio one particularly disturbing experience at the headquarters of GEA, another company BFI had absorbed. Mohmand encountered Giancarlo Andolfo, GEA's previous owner who had stayed on as general manager after the purchase, in a heated argument with a local mayor over illegal payoffs the politician was demanding in exchange for allowing GEA to operate without interference. "Please look into this matter," Mohmand wrote Taddonio in a May, 1991 memo. "It bothers me."
Instead of investigating, Taddonio ordered him not to write any more letters to anyone about pollution, graft or any other unpleasant topics. He began opening Mohmand's mail -- Taddonio has since admitted doing so -- and eventually told Mohmand to take a two-week vacation. When Mohmand returned in late July, he discovered that his office lock had been jimmied and his files removed. Shortly thereafter, he was fired.
BFI contends that Mohmand's disruptive behavior and inability to get along with his Italian colleagues led to his dismissal. In their depositions, Taddonio, Ruckelshaus and current BFI president and CEO Bruce Ranck disclaimed any knowledge of bribery, dangerous pollution or anything untoward in their Italian branch.
Which seems odd, since Italian police busted Giancarlo Andolfo in early 1993 on bribery charges, and his subsequent confession landed several prominent politicians in jail. Asked if he would be aware if any such criminal activity had been uncovered in a BFI company, Ruckelshaus allowed that "As a rule, I would have been made aware of that, yeah."
In this case, his underlings must have made a special effort to keep him in the dark. Ruckelshaus claimed he'd never seen a study prepared for BFI Italia in early 1991 that assessed the Italian waste management market. "For private companies like Browning-Ferris to operate in [the existing] political situation, cooperation is often the most acceptable alternative to not doing business," the report's most alarming section read. "This may take the form of facilitation payments made directly to responsible officials who may not even be able to promise results."
Nor did he admit seeing any of the material Mohmand sent him detailing the problems in Italy. And Ruckelshaus also denied knowledge of a 1992 audit of BFI Italia's subsidiaries conducted by the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, an audit that was ordered out of Houston to investigate financial irregularities.
BFI Europe president Rod Proto learned of the audit while vacationing in California, and, furious that it had been performed without his knowledge, flew to Houston and demanded an explanation. According to Proto's deposition, he met with Ruckelshaus, who apologized for the secrecy but said it had been necessary to ensure accuracy. It was Ruckelshaus, said Proto, who told him the reason for the audit was to check out reports of misused funds in Italy. But no matter, Ruckelshaus told him, because the audit gave BFI Italia a clean bill of health.
The audit, which Mohmand's attorney has obtained despite repeated denials of its existence by BFI, casts doubt on Ruckelshaus' assertion. Handwritten notes refer to "sensitive transactions/political scandals currently being investigated/severe penal (jail) terms and commercial/business risk."
Maybe the chairman's memory is simply failing. Questioned about his company's tarnished image prior to his arrival, Ruckelshaus replied, "As best I could determine, BFI had a fine reputation." He must have been ignoring such press accounts as the one in Business Week that announced his hiring with the headline, "Can Bill Ruckelshaus Clean Up Browning-Ferris' Act?" (Neither BFI's attorney, Michael Moore of Fulbright & Jaworski, nor corporation officials would comment on Mohmand's allegations, citing the pending litigation.)
Ruckelshaus will have another couple of chances to deny everything. After the audit emerged from the void, Judge Lloyd gave Mohmand attorney Davenport permission to again depose the chairman, whose earlier deposition had been limited by Lloyd to just two hours -- a highly unusual restriction. Davenport says she'll likely ask Ruckelshaus to put his comments on record during the trial as well.
Mohmand claims he's been unable to get work in his field since BFI fired him. Every time he tells a potential employer about his BFI experience, the employer backs off. "They don't want to upset BFI," Mohmand says.
If the trial actually begins October 8 (it's been postponed numerous times), Mohmand hopes his lonely fight against the garbage behemoth will finally pay off. But like the mujahideen in Afghanistan who outlasted the Soviets, he'll persevere as long as it takes to get his due. "I've been waiting five years to get justice," Mohmand says. "I can wait more.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.