Freed Van der Linde: Govt drops suit against recycler
Amid a succession of public relations nightmares, including the jailing of its star witness and mounting legal costs (with lawyers billing as much as $515 an hour), the local government that's been using an anti-mafia statute to sue a citizen threw in the towel January 20 as it accepted a $600,000 settlement from the citizen, Peter Van der Linde, a man whose own recycling center brought embarrassment and financial distress to the body suing him, the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority.
"This is a good day's work, and I'm glad to see it happen," said Authority board member David Brown, after the unanimous vote to approve the terms of the settlement, which also calls for the Authority's partner-in-trash, BFI, to pay $300,000.
The settlement also dissolves the controversial 1997 agreement between the RSWA and BFI (see Authority director Tom Frederick's summary of the agreement here) that was at the heart of the legal battle. BFI will continue to receive city trash and recycling under the terms of the old agreement until June 30, 2010, which happens to be the same day the city’s support agreement with the Authority ends.
The move comes just a day after former city councilor Rob Schilling called the Authority "corrupt and inept" and accused it of "government thuggery."
Schilling, who has collected hundreds of citizen names on an anti-lawsuit petition and produced bumper stickers reading "Dump R$WA," accused the Authority of using strong-arm techniques against a competitor.
But perhaps the biggest setback to the government's case came in December when the lead witness–- former Van der Linde employee Richard Wade Kendrick–- was convicted by a Fluvanna County jury of attempted extortion for trying to squeeze his former boss out of $90,000.
"They are nothing more than common criminals." Schilling said January 19 on his WINA-AM radio show. "We're going to keep the pressure on until they they just dissolve this Authority and stop the lawsuit."
Waste Authority officials, however, showed little interest in dissolving, having recently begun discussing getting a law to force area households and haulers to use government facilities such as the old Ivy Landfill, and they had defended the lawsuit as a simple debt collection–- even as they conceded that the debts they were trying to collect should have been collected and paid by BFI (also known as Allied and Republic Services due to mergers), which had the responsibility of collecting what amounted to a tax, a $16-per-ton fee on trash from Charlottesville or Albemarle.
The move may come none too soon for Ken Boyd, an avowed free-market Republican who found himself among those pressing the suit while trying to convince the party faithful that he deserves their votes in his fight against at least six fellow Republicans for the party's nomination for the Congressional seat now held by Democrat Tom Perriello.
"We're glad to see it behind us," Boyd said during the public portion of Wednesday's meeting. Asked after the meeting if the suit had hindered his candidacy, Boyd remarked, "I don't think it hindered it at all."
LIkewise, newly seated Republican supervisor Duane Snow says that he not only didn't press for a settlement but also didn't know that the mediation that led to the settlement was going on.
The public got a first glimpse of the main event at Kendrick's trial in Fluvanna when Van der Linde took the stand and denied lying or ever asking his drivers to lie, something the Authority alleged he did. The Authority also alleged that he destroyed incriminating evidence. Van der Linde, who has long called the lawsuit a "vendetta," said the supposed evidence was a bunch of throw-away tickets.
"You don't pay money for no reason," says legal analyst David Heilberg. "Obviously, somebody's weighing the risk of a trial."
Heilberg, noting that he has no inside knowledge of this case, says that all sides are always weighing the risks of moving toward the expensive and uncertain outcome of a trial–- but that some players may have more staying power.
"The guy who has the big guns, the big lawyers, and the deep pockets," says Heilberg, "can wear down an adversary with less resources. He can spend a million dollars to sue you for 100 dollars. He'll show you."
Over the course of the past two years, Van der Linde has tried to show the Authority that there's a better way to handle waste than putting it in the ground. About a year ago, he opened his $11 million recycling facility literally next door to the Authority-sponsored waste station in the Fluvanna County community of Zion Crossroads, and fans say he's built a better mouse-trap. And already, the Authority admits, the shift in business to Van der Linde has been a prime contributor to a 20 percent drop in Authority revenue.
Boyd had begun distancing himself from some of the more extreme aspects of Authority director Tom Frederick's effort to monopolize waste services, but with Boyd and other pols silently supporting the lawsuit, it fell to agitators like Schilling and to would-be official Bob Fenwick, who ran for City Council last year, to make the free-market case for dropping the litigation.
"It's hard enough to start and run a business without having this added burden to deal with," says Fenwick. "It has taken a toll on him even though he's had terrific public support."
So did the lawsuit. Even though it wasn't slated for trial until June, it had already consumed about $340,000 in RSWA funds by late November. Asked Wednesday night where the legal fee tally now stands, lead Authority lawyer Kurt Krueger said he didn't know, but two days later the Authority revealed that the total came to $388,000.
To Albemarle citizen Clara Belle Wheeler, the tipping point came when she learned that the Authority couldn't say how much it was spending each year to operate the McIntire Road recycling facility. After all, Van der Linde had long offered to replace it with 20 such centers scattered around the County–- all open 24/7 and requiring no sorting or personnel.
"If they cannot tell you what it's costing to manage one small bit of it," says Wheeler, "then how can they manage the whole thing? That's absolutely inexcusable."
Ironically, Wednesday's momentous agreement–- which includes a gag order, no admission of liabilty, and gives Van der Linde five years, and BFI/Allied/Republic three years, to pay–- occurred in the absence of Mike Gaffney, the chair of both this Authority and its sibling, the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority which has had a town-rocking controversy of its own: an allegedly bloated water plan.
Fenwick hopes that the Waste Authority learned a lesson.
"I can't think of anyone I've met who thinks the public should do this to him," says Fenwick, who operates a website called freevanderlinde.com. "He had a real dream and a real vision and just got knee-capped on it."
Fenwick wasn't done.
"It's been a real eye-opener on political maneuvering and special interests and the fact that if government goes after you, they have an endless pot of money to work with," says Fenwick. "And, ironically, it's all your money."
–updated 3:58pm Friday, January 22 with legal analyst info and more