Tell Me if You Smell Anything
There’s a reason why Consumer
Reports doesn’t buy stock in the companies whose products they
are testing. It’s the same reason why eyebrows would raise if the
FDA made a contribution to a pharmaceutical company while it was
testing one of their drugs. It’s called a conflict of interest.
All of which makes the very large
donation made by Stearns & Wheler to the campaign of Christopher St.
Lawrence just a little suspicious.
The upstate engineering firm gave
$2,500 to the Friends of Christopher St. Lawrence, making it the
third largest money amount given by 158 donors. And they did this
while they were in the middle of an extensive, and expensive,
evaluation of the failing Rockland County Sewer District #1 (RCSD#1).
The guy who cashed the Stearns & Wheler check, Christopher St.
Lawrence, happens to be one of the Commissioners at the RCSD#1 (the
party being investigated by the engineering firm).
Here are the facts on a note card:
Christopher P. St. Lawrence is Ramapo
Supervisor and a Sewer Commissioner at RCSD#1.
Stearns & Wheler is a corporation of
environmental engineers and scientists at One Remington Park Drive,
Cazenovia, NY 13035
May 10, 2006
The Dept. of Environmental Conservation fines Rockland County Sewer
District #1 for illegal spills and orders an engineering study and
plans for fixing the system.
Stearns & Wheler is given a contract to do
an engineering study of the sewer system.
May 4, 2007
Stearns & Wheler donates $2,500 to the Friends of CSL campaign fund.
Only two other donors gave more out of a list of 158 private and
July 2, 2007 Stearns & Wheler releases
engineering evaluation of RCSD#1.
When asked about the situation, Stearns
& Wheler CEO, James Hook said we were asked to make a donation. When
I pointed out the awkward timing of contribution, that it was made
while they were doing an important, months-long evaluation that
could have an impact on the political future of St. Lawrence,
especially in light of his total denial of any problems with the
sewer system, Mr. Hook replied, "We have no control over the
A call to the engineer in charge of the
Consent Order at the DEC produced a different kind of advice. The
engineer, Manju Cherian, referred it to a lawyer at the agency, and
he explained they didn’t have the time or resources to pursue this,
but that it was something that could be presented before the
Rockland County Ethics Commission. Yes, we do have an ethics
commission, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t meet. I thanked the
engineer and decided I could just as well find my own place to go to
spit into the wind rather than at the county.
The state didn’t have the personnel to
follow up on the question, and the county, well, the county can’t
even enforce its own laws about illegal political contributions from
vendors, so I wasn’t going to waste any time there. That left the
court of last resort--the most powerful of all review agencies,
actually--the voters. Those who are paying the sewer district fines,
those who funded the 8-month Stearns & Wheler study, and those who
will eventually bear the burden of the costs of repairing a sewer
system that has failed under the weight of too much development. In
the words of CEO Hook, "There’s a trunk system that doesn’t have
enough capacity," and the initial estimated cost to fix that is $50
The Questions Remaining:
1. Why would a company from 200
miles away make such a substantial donation to a local
politician? They don’t vote or live here, they’re from near
2. What endeared St. Lawrence
to Stearns & Wheler?
3. If it’s just a kind of
political payola, why doesn’t someone do something about
this? Isn’t demanding donations from companies that do
business with the town a kind of extortion?
4. And most important, how does
this substantial political contribution reflect on the
objectivity of the report on the sewers? Remember, St.
Lawrence is a Sewer Commissioner who has been denying for
years that there are any problems with his system. The
report could reflect badly on his credibility, his
competence, and his Master Plan that assumes there is plenty
of capacity for developers to keep adding high-density
projects to Ramapo’s landscape (a notion apparently not
shared by Mr. Hook). Were the numbers manipulated to
minimize the damage to the Commissiner/Supervisor? Was the
language "managed" in the report? Is the $50m disaster fee
all of it, or will the number change as the work is begun?
Remember, it was the same engineering firm that wrote the
estimate for Orangetown’s sewer repairs and the original
$22m there has now ballooned to $47m.
With the obvious appearance of a
conflict of interest and no governmental agency with the time and
resources, or the will, to fully investigate this large donation, I
leave it to the voters to make up their own minds. I have far more
confidence in them than in, say, the Rockland County Ethics
If you want a look at the rest of the
St. Lawrence donors, you can click
here for the lists. (And if anyone knows who that Sonnaro
Development from Syracuse is, or the Monsey Route 59 Associates that
lists a mailbox address, I’d be interested to know—they gave $8,500
between them.) You can email me at