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Former Lawmaker Recalls Bribe Offer on Landfill Legislation

Excerpt from Stephen Hale’s thorough report on a lawsuit, legislation and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation as they relate to a landfill near Camden.
If the Jackson Law didn’t deliver the protection Camden residents hoped, maybe other legislation will. State Rep. Tim Wirgau, whose district includes Camden, is actively trying to slow the landfill permitting process. He’s filed a bill (HB952) that would amend the Jackson Law by adding a requirement for public notice and a public hearing prior to an increase in a landfill’s classification, or an expansion of the type of waste the landfill is authorized to accept.
Last year, Wirgau sponsored a bill that would have effectively shut down the EWS site. The bill made only one proper appearance in a subcommittee — which was not attended by EWS representatives — and was eventually deferred without ever getting a vote.
His new bill is yet to appear for the first time at the legislature. Wirgau says he’s optimistic, but that his guard is up after support he thought he had in his camp last year vanished. And he’s already heard from the opposition.
“We have heard from some of the larger landfill people with concerns, like, ‘Oh, we’ve already got enough problems so I don’t think we’re going to be on your side on this one,’ ” Wirgau tells the Scene. “My take is on it, look — if you’re a landfill operator and you are doing a good job, and you are working within your communities and all the boundaries, I don’t think any of the locals are going to have a problem with the operation that you’re running right now. But if you’re a bad actor, and not doing things properly, then you’re going to have a tough time getting an expansion or a new permit, especially from the locals.”
One former legislator would no doubt sympathize with Wirgau’s uphill battle. In 1989, Doug Jackson learned about the dirty politics of trash. Then a Tennessee state representative, he proposed the legislation nicknamed for him in response to a large landfill that had been proposed in his Dickson County district.
Suddenly, Jackson remembers, he was a popular man on Capitol Hill — or at least his office was crowded.
“It had lobbyists lined up 20 deep, and all the landfill companies obviously mobilized in opposition,” says Jackson, who left office after his defeat in 2010 and now serves as executive director of The Renaissance Center in Dickson. “And then the Tennessee Municipal League opposed it. The County Governments Association opposed it. It just seemed to have no friends.”
It was the toughest piece of legislation he ever sponsored, he says. He adds that it was notable for another reason: the first and only time in office he was ever offered a bribe.
The day after the bill passed out of the House environment committee, Jackson recalls, a man from South Carolina showed up at his law office without an appointment. He said he was involved with several landfills, Jackson says, including what was then the largest hazardous waste landfill in the country along with the landfill proposed for Jackson’s district. And he had a proposition.
“He said, ‘I’ve made all the money that I could ever hope to spend in my life, this landfill up here is going to be another good one, and I know you’re under pressure. And we’re used to addressing that, the pressures of local officials,’ ” Jackson remembers. “He said, ‘I think we can make this worth your while.’ ”
At that point, Jackson stepped outside and asked his secretary to come into the office and have a seat.
“Now do you want to go ahead and continue this conversation, or do you want to change the subject?” Jackson recalls telling the man.
The man just laughed, Jackson says, and got up to leave saying that he could see they weren’t going to get anywhere. Several years later, after the bill had passed into law, the two crossed paths again. Jackson says the man flagged him down, reminded Jackson who he was, and told him he’d done a “very stupid thing.”
“You would’ve made enough money out of that, you would’ve never had to work another day in your life,” Jackson recalls him saying.