Residents in the Purcell area of Jasper County cannot be blamed if they do not trust the word of anyone from the state government.
The proposed Southwest Regional Landfill appears almost certain to be opened sometime in the next several months and members of Citizens for Environmental Safety, who have opposed this project since it first was proposed nearly two decades ago, have been given short shrift by state agencies throughout that time.
If the Department of Natural Resources had followed state law, the initial approval for the landfill would never have been granted. In the early 1990s, the state agency chose to ignore a law that says convicted felons cannot operate a landfill in this state.
W. L. "Bud" Gehrs, who first proposed the landfill had what could charitably be called a checkered record as far as the environment was concerned, and he had been convicted of a felony.
U. S. District Court documents uncovered during my 1991 investigation of the landfill project allege that between June 23, 1980, and Dec. 8, 1983, Gehrs, at the time the owner and general manager of Springfield-based National Oil and Supply Co., told his employees to overstate the amount of petroleum products delivered to the company's customers.
National Oil then overbilled the customers, according to the court documents. The U. S. Attorney formally charged that Gehrs and his associates "knowingly and willfully devised a scheme to defraud and to obtain money from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City, Mo., Greene County, Mo., Christian County, Mo., Taney County, MO., Camden County, Mo., City of Clinton, MO., Billings Special Road District; Crawford County, Kan., and Baxter County, Ark., by means of false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises."
Court documents indicate that Gehrs and the U. S. Government reached a plea bargain agreement which had the Joplin businessman pleading guilty to just one count of fraud. He could have been sentenced to five years in prison, according to the court documents, but he was placed on probation for three years. He agreed to make restitution in the amount of $34,346.92 and was fined $10,000. Gehrs was ordered to perform 300 hours of community service work with a non-profit organization over a two-year period. The probation was successfully completed on May 14, 1989, according to court documents.
Gehrs' felony conviction was cited by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in a comment letter mailed Sept. 30, 1991, concerning the proposed landfill.
Also cited were other times in which Gehrs and/or his associates with National Oil were charged with felonies. These included a conviction of Gehrs for failure to pay sales tax with intent to defraud and a conviction of one of his National Oil salesmen for bribing an Arkansas County judge and lying to a federal grand jury.
The sales tax violation was detailed in a tax information bulletin published by the Missouri Department of Revenue, Division of Tourism in July 1980.
"A special audit of National Oil Company, owned and operated by William L. Gehrs of Springfield, Mo., demonstrated that Mr. Gehrs had approximately $335,000 in sales tax," the publication said. "However, Mr. Gehrs had used an exemption number to run approximately $100,000 in building materials through the purchase vouchers of his oil company. These materials were used by Gehrs to build an apartment complex in Joplin, Mo. The taxes for these consumed materials were approximately $4,000 plus penalties, plus interest."
According to the article, the Special Audit Bureau of the Division of Taxation successfully prosecuted Gehrs on a felony charge of failure to pay Missouri sales tax with intent to defraud.
Though Gehrs was ordered to turn over all information about these convictions to the DNR 15 years ago and presumably did so, the agency apparently decided it could trust a businessman with a past record of convictions for fraud to take care of the environment in eastern Jasper County.
Now, though Gehrs is no longer associated with the project, Purcell-area residents are receiving the same kind of double dealing from our state government, from the people who are supposed to serve as the stewards of our environment, with the recent decision to approve a newly-formed company to take over the landfill when and if it opens...in apparent disregard of a federal court order. I will delve more into that in upcoming posts.