Luke Rosiak | Investigative Reporter
- Flint, Michigan, steered $22 million in water crisis aid to a firm with no experience that is using slow and expensive methods to dig holes in order to replace lead water pipes, a city council member alleged.
- The city banned an effective method of digging holes, putting the company on an even playing field with other bidders, according to a political activist.
- The mayor’s chief adviser demanded that the company be given more work, despite having a backlog.
The company Flint, Michigan, hired to replace lead water pipes had no experience with the work, according to a councilwoman and a contractor, despite that the city has received more than $600 million in state and federal aid for its water crisis.
And the city ignored a model showing where lead pipes are and paid to dig up every yard, the vast majority of which had copper pipes, according to meeting minutes.
The city also prohibited contractors from using an efficient method of digging holes known as hydrovac excavation, Flint Councilwoman Eva Worthing told The Daily Caller News Foundation. That leveled the playing field for a contractor, WT Stevens, with no experience or the appropriate equipment — and let it bill far more to taxpayers, she says. All of these factors, she adds, needlessly led to more waiting for anyone who actually has lead pipes.
Huge amounts of aid dollars — including $100 million from the Environmental Protection Agency — have flowed to the small city of 90,000 residents to address lead in its water supply, even though it doesn’t have a chief financial officer and, until recently, its finance chair was a gun felon.
The federal money “should be a good thing for the city,” Worthing told TheDCNF, “but given the mismanagement of the pipe replacement program, I am concerned that it’s not going to get used properly.”
The city “chose to dig up yards that they knew were copper, and they decided to hand dig instead of hydrovac,” Worthing told TheDCNF. “That was because WT Stevens didn’t have the ability, and you get more money [digging by hand]. It costs $250 [to hydrovac] versus thousands” to dig a large hole without the equipment.
Mayor Karen Weaver and Councilman Eric Mays have frequently lauded WT Stevens as key to the lead-pipe replacement efforts. The contractor is a general construction company, and its rudimentary website shows a picture of a home being built.
The city’s request for bids required that companies have relevant experience that WT Stevens lacked, the owner of a competitor, Ellis Monk, told TheDCNF. WT Stevens won by saying Monk’s experienced company, Michigan Monk, would serve as a subcontractor.
Monk told TheDCNF that Mays helped establish that arrangement. Monk said he tried to train WT Stevens’ staff and supervise them, but the water line work went poorly since they had no experience.
“They’re drilling every which way, junk flying everywhere. They didn’t realize what they’re doing to the structure of the house,” he told TheDCNF, saying the unskilled work could damage houses’ foundations. WT Stevens “hired people [with] no experience, some of them seemed like they were fresh out of jail.”
WT Stevens, which has received $22 million in contracts from Flint since 2016, didn’t pay him as promised and eventually cut him out of the deal, Monk alleges. A lawyer for WT Stevens denied wrongdoing but declined to elaborate, citing an ongoing lawsuit.
Mays has boasted about the money the city awarded to WT Stevens.
On April 27, Mays said: “We’ve taken in over $647 million. This is where the money is at. We’ve received about $167 million for pipe replacement.” He added that he’s “proud” that Flint “broke records for giving black folks money” through contracts, naming WT Stevens. The company is owned by Rhonda Grayer, a black woman and wife of a former NBA player.
When asked if WT Stevens had specialization in water line work prior to the Flint contract, Grayer said to TheDCNF: “Are you asking the other contractors that? We’re one of five.”
Flint-based Goyette Mechanical, which does water main work throughout the state and has a division called “municipal utilities,” did a portion of the pipe replacement in Flint initially, but was passed over for the latest round of water contracts.
Goyette provided the lowest bid, but a city official said there was a problem with it and started the process over, according to The Flint Journal.
City council members were stunned by the unusual move. “I would like a written rationale … for this pipe rebid,” Councilwoman Kate Fields said at the time. “Unless I see something that’s really legitimate, my opinion is that this … has been corrupted once again,” she said, referring to the decision to throw out Goyette’s low bid and start over.
Goyette provided a price per linear foot of pipe as the city requested, a company official, Joe Parks, told TheDCNF, but also offered an alternative flat rate per house. The city said that offering that option made the bid improper — then took the idea and had all the other companies bid on flat rates, too.
Monk said, “They discontinued it because Goyette was the low bidder and he could have got all of it.”
Monk also bid to do the work as a primary contractor, but was not chosen.
Throwing out the map
The work consists of two parts: digging holes to find out whether a home has lead and replacing the pipes if so.
The first question is largely answered by a predictive model developed by the University of Michigan that identified locations with lead pipes with 94 percent accuracy. But the engineering firm hired by the city to oversee the water contractors, AECOM, didn’t use it, according to The Flint Journal.
Meeting minutes show that AECOM oversaw the digging of nearly 12,000 sites, but only 1,738 actually had lead pipes — a hit rate of 15 percent, The Flint Journal reported. The city paid AECOM $6.1 million.
Mays told TheDCNF the justification for paying a company to dig up yards that almost certainly had no lead pipes was an abundance of caution.
“The mayor and I want to check every house, not just the ones you predict,” he said, adding it was inefficient to do a few houses here and a few houses there rather than knocking out whole blocks.
A Flint activist and onetime mayoral candidate, Arthur Woodson, told TheDCNF that made little sense because the predictive model generally shows lead pipes on the entire block or not.
“The predictive model was a 94 percent hit. If you want 100 percent, why not go into the areas where the majority of the pipes are, and then do the extras?” he said. “But don’t go into neighborhoods where there are none at all. And they gave WT Stevens the area where there was none.”
Woodson said in one neighborhood, WT Stevens “dug up 300 homes and only found six lead lines. The predictive model probably told them about those six.”
Meeting minutes include testimony charging the contractors were more concerned with making money than with helping residents and that a top adviser to Weaver tried to steer money to WT Stevens. (RELATED: Flint Mayor Gets Raise To 7 Times Average Salary)
“Essentially, the contractors only want to focus on properties where they will make the most money and are most convenient for them to work,” AECOM official Darby Neidieg told city officials, according to an October 2018 meeting’s minutes.
The meeting minutes show that AECOM told city officials it had ordered WT Stevens to “prioritize outstanding lead service lines over exploratory excavations, and that they would not be issued any new addresses to conduct exploratory excavations until” they had removed lead lines and finished their existing explorations.
But the mayor’s chief adviser, Aonie Gilcreast, said “that AECOM should not wait until WT Stevens was finished with the replacements that they have been issued before giving them more addresses,” according to the minutes. “He stated that AECOM would have trouble out of him if they didn’t issue WT Stevens more addresses.”
Gilcreast is a longtime political operative in Flint who once forfeited $52,000 to the government after the FBI received a tip he was running an illegal gambling business and the police seized evidence of a numbers-running operation. He was never charged criminally.
The mayor’s spokeswoman, Candice Mushatt, declined to answer questions from TheDCNF about Flint’s handling of water contracts.
Then a voice sounding distinctly like Gilcreast, that had secretly been listening in on the call, began shouting and accusing this reporter of giving a “bogus name” — before giving a false name himself. He claimed his name was “Jesse Jesse” and said, “I don’t have a job title.” (RELATED: As Questions Around Flint Spending Swell, Mayor’s Office Has Blackballed The Only Local Paper)
TheDCNF provided an audio recording of the call to Woodson, who identified the voice, which had a distinctive stutter, as Gilchreast’s.
Minutes from a May 31, 2018, meeting show that Neidig said, “The issue is that there is more copper-to-copper than we originally thought there would be … which is bad for the [service line replacement] contractors but good for the residents of Flint.”
“Mr. Gilcreast stated that whatever money isn’t used would be returned to the state. He also stated that the first responsibility for the city of Flint is to get the job done, not to save the state money,” the minutes continue.
Equipment called hydrovac quickly drills holes and sucks out dirt. Unlike WT Stevens, Goyette Mechanical, the plumbing specialist involved in addressing the lead pipes early on, used such machinery and, also unlike WT Stevens, finished on time, Woodson said.
Goyette was ready to fix more lead pipes and asked for 500 more addresses, while WT Stevens still had a backlog. Woodson told TheDCNF that was the impetus for Gilchreast ordering the engineer to assign more addresses to WT Stevens even though the company still hadn’t finished its existing work.
Then the city banned all contractors from using hydrovac technology, forcing all companies to use the same technology as the one with no relevant experience, Woodson said.
Parks, the Goyette official, said, “After the bids went out they said you can’t use hydrovac, but you had do to it for the same price. We lost a lot of money on that. It’s the right technology to use, and we were using it in combination with excavators. We did the earlier work that way without issue.”
Mays told TheDCNF he personally was not against hydrovac, but that the mayor’s justification was that the more targeted, 18-inch “exploratory” holes could show a section of copper pipe without revealing that it was just a short splice on an otherwise lead line.
Woodson says this logic falls apart considering the prohibition was not only on using the technology to do “exploratory” holes, but also from using it to dig out large holes around lead pipes in order to replace them.
“So it was never about safety, it was about them making it easy because WT Stevens couldn’t keep up and Goyette was the only company with a hydrovac, so they were able to move the earth quicker and gobble up all the addresses,” Woodson added.
Woodson said when it comes time to request funds, Flint officials describe the water crisis as an urgent emergency — which he said it is. So, he said, it is illogical for them to use less-efficient digging methods, to spend time digging up blocks that are highly unlikely to have lead pipes, and to assign more work to a backlogged contractor instead of one that is ready to perform.
“I haven’t been able to prove it, but they’ve got to be giving them kickbacks,” he alleged regarding a relationship between WT Stevens, Weaver, Mays, and Gilchreast.
Weaver and Mays once vociferously argued for a trash contract to be given to a firm that’s executive later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe, while the council members who have pointed to problems with WT Stevens blocked it.
TheDCNF asked Mays if he believed that Flint residents were being put at risk by having to wait while a company using non-specialized technology dug holes in places that were unlikely to need work. Mays said fighting among city politicians has delayed Flint’s cleanup efforts more than the digging method.
“The harm doesn’t come with the shovel or hydrovac and the quickness,” Mays said. Instead, he blamed a minority on the council — including “the three white councilpersons” — for causing delays by objecting to what was going on.
In March 2019, outcry by those councilmen and legal action from the National Resources Defense Council culminated in the city saying that it would finally begin using the predictive model to service homes that likely have lead pipes first.
Email Luke at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
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