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7th arrest made in alleged Douglas County landfill weight schemes, detailed in court documents

Pheasant Point staff took cash, $25 gift cards — even hams — in a financial scheme that may have been happening since 1995 in some cases.
Published: Apr. 16, 2021 at 4:05 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - A seventh arrest was made Friday in the Pheasant Point Landfill investigation that resulted in several arrests Thursday night.

James Sudyka was booked Friday for theft of $1,500-$5,000 and criminal conspiracy to commit a Class 2A felony, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said in an update.

Six people were arrested Thursday night, included the landfill supervisor, with a warrant out on a seventh after authorities said employees had altered the weights of certain dump loads in exchange for money or other gifts.

Landfill staff took cash, $25 gift cards — even hams — in a financial scheme at the dump that may have been happening since 1995 in some cases that’s cost the county almost $350,000, according to documents 6 News obtained Friday.

Douglas County Court documents and Douglas County Sheriff’s Office reports obtained by 6 News show authorities have been investigating reports of ongoing malfeasance at the landfill since November. The criminal complaints filed Thursday in county court detail schemes by employees to overcharge individuals and companies using the landfill, then pocketing the difference.

Some accounts in the documents came from statements made by a Pheasant Point employee who was also listed as accepting some illicit payments, but that person was not charged.

According to court documents filed Thursday in Douglas County Court, the dominos started to fall after an employee with the county’s Environmental Services department was made aware of a potential situation at the dump: Waste Management had sent home three scale house employees on “suspicion of theft” one day in mid-October 2020. The county employee then notified DCSO on Nov. 12 that landfill scale house employees weren’t correctly weighing vehicles coming and going from the dump, shorting Waste Management as much as $350,000 over three years.

When working properly, hauler vehicles are weighed as they bring refuse into the landfill and as they exit, with the latter amount subtracted from the former amount to give the correct weight of — and resulting charge for — materials dumped at the landfill on that trip. But court documents state that the county ESD employee discovered employees were manually entering in weights that resulted in “substantially” lower amounts owed by certain customers.

“The investigation identified at least one scale house employee who received consistent monetary compensation from one of the businesses. This employee was known to dispense ‘tips’ to the other scale house employees,” the report states.

Investigators discovered that five landfill employees were allowing specific frequent business customers to dump there at “vastly reduced rates or for free,” according to the DCSO release.

Information provided by Waste Management showed that “the weight was always lowered below the minimum dump fee of 1 ton,” court documents state.

During the course of the investigation, WM shared a spreadsheet of suspicious transactions and video from June 5 and Aug. 31. The county court documents state that 336 dumps had been adjusted by various employees for a single business during that time.

“This included cash customers who weighed in and out too quickly,” court documents state.

Waste Management, the county treasurer, the State of Nebraska, and landowner Donald Graham receive varying percentages of revenue from the landfill, calculated on a per-ton basis, court documents state. The minimum fee for the dump is $26.38, records states.

Douglas County landfill supervisor, employees, customers arrested
Douglas County landfill supervisor, employees, customers arrested(WOWT)

Investigation details & allegations

Authorities arrested several landfill employees and associates Thursday night and a seventh on Friday. The six arrested Thursday appeared in court at 9 a.m. Friday, and all had bond set at $20,000.

Landfill supervisor Mark Huntley

Another landfill employee told DCSO that Huntley made “discount” deals with local roofers, obtaining $25 gift cards and hams for scale house employees in exchange, court documents state.

Huntley was booked Thursday night on Class 2A felony charge of criminal conspiracy in the theft of services amounting to $5,000 or more, and formally charged with one count Friday.

Clerk and weighmaster Mark Helmberger

Weighmasters are responsible for operating a computerized scale and calculating how much someone should be charged for solid waste disposal. They also handle cash and check transactions.

Court documents show Helmberger, who had apparently worked for the county for more than 13 years, told investigators that the discounts scheme had been going on since he started working at the scale house in 2007. Helmberger was one of the employees noted in the WM spreadsheet who conducted 51 of the 336 transactions the company recorded in the summer of 2020, court documents state.

Helmberger was booked Thursday night on the same Class 2A felony charge of criminal conspiracy, and formally charged with one count Friday.

Employee Lara Anahi

Court documents state that a landfill employee told investigators Anahi was seen retrieving a large roll of cash from the back room at the end of her shift — and that Huntley had taken a large roll of cash into the back room on the same day. Investigators later discovered that Anahi had paid $7,750 in cash to purchase a 2105 Ford Fusion in June 2019.

Court documents show Ahai was one of three employees sent home by WM in October and conducted 46 of the 336 transactions the company recorded in the summer of 2020.

Anahi was booked Thursday night on the same Class 2A felony charge of criminal conspiracy, and formally charged with one count Friday.

Employee Suzanne Swanson

According to court documents, Swanson was one of three employees sent home by WM in October and conducted 60 of the 336 transactions the company recorded in the summer of 2020. She was also mentioned in other accounts of manipulated transactions and receipt of “tips.” She was booked Thursday night on the same Class 2A felony charges of criminal conspiracy, and formally charged Friday.

Debris hauler Gary Cooper

In interviews with DCSO in February, Cooper said he had been receiving a discount for one or two years from all staff at the scale house, but hadn’t asked for it. In total, investigators estimated he pocketed nearly $9,000 and shorted the landfill more than $38,000, court documents state.

Cooper was booked Thursday night on the same Class 2A felony charge of criminal conspiracy, and formally charged with one count Friday.

Debris hauler Hector Flores

An employee told investigators that Flores was getting discounts regularly, despite saying he had only visited the landfill once, according to court documents. WM officials, however, said they had noted at least 32 times during their investigation timeframe that Flores had been at the dump to unload. During those trips, Sudyka had manually adjusted weight and fees for him 30 times, and Anahi and Helmberger had each adjusted them once.

Helmberger also told investigators that he paid Flores to replace the roof at his home, paying Flores $2,100 less than his insurance had given him for the repairs.

Flores was booked Thursday on a Class 4 felony charge, and formally charged with one count Friday.

Employee James Sudyka

Court documents show Sudyka told investigators in February that he had been making the weight and fee adjustments to “make the line move fast enough.” He said he referred to some customers as “$20 ones,” which signaled they were to receive the shifted weights and discounted fees; and let some haulers dump entirely free of charge, signaling those with “he’s my guy.”

Another landfill employee said Sudyka and “other now-retired employees” had been taking money from the scale house since 1995 using fake tickets or deleting cash transactions from the computer system and pocketing the funds, divvying up the day’s ill-gotten funds from the register amongst themselves.

Helmberger said that Sudyka would take a bag of scale house cash in the back room at the end of each day and sort out cash “tips” of $17-$100 that would later get picked up by the other staffers. Additionally, one business doing regular dumping told investigators that Sudyka starting asking its haulers for $50 cash payments as they were coming in, then handing them receipts for less than that as they exited.

A review of receipts provided by the business showed the adjustments resulted in about $3,000 cash payments to Sudyka at a cost of nearly $11,000 to the landfill, court documents show. Sudyka was also one of three employees sent home by WM in October and conducted 126 of the 336 transactions the company recorded in the summer of 2020, court documents state.

“Sudyka also denied stealing any cash from scale house, but later admitted that he stole $20 a week from transactions with customers,” the documents state.

Sudyka was booked Friday on theft by unlawful taking $1,500-$5,000 and criminal conspiracy to commit a Class 2A felony and has not yet appeared in court.

‘I wanted to call them out’

While the first report was made to DSCO in November, investigators examined activities starting in June 2020, finding that two businesses were receiving “egregious levels of financial benefits” or giving “tips” to scale house employees.

According to the report, one of the businesses would pay its tips on almost every trip to the landfill, resulting in overall reduced costs to dump there. Investigators also determined that one of the employees received “consistent monetary compensation from one of the businesses,” the DCSO report states.

Douglas County landfill supervisor, employees, customers arrested
Douglas County landfill supervisor, employees, customers arrested(WOWT)

On Friday, 6 News talked with John McCaig, owner of The Demo Guys LLC in Blair, whose company makes regular trips to the dump.

“They’d always ask beforehand, ‘Are you cash?’ — and you could tell when they asked ‘if you had cash,’ you know, they’d yell to the other guy and say ‘Hey, he’s cash, by the way, this car’s cash.’ So when we’d come back through with a load of insulation or something that was extremely light ...you could tell it was bumped. A $10 load would turn into $20 real quick,” he said.

McCaig said he had considered going to DCSO or Waste Management but didn’t know who to call since he knew one of the employees he suspected of wrongdoing was a supervisor.

“We were so obvious to it that we’d play a game and tell them ‘check’ and when we got up there we’d hand them cash, and you could tell it bothered them... It was one of those things where I wanted to call them out but didn’t know the process. And for me, the $5-$10 difference wasn’t... but obviously it could’ve been bigger for somebody else.”

Reporters Mike McKnight and Marlo Lundak and Managing Editor Kevin Westhues contributed to this report.

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