Leaders in a Burlington County borough schemed to allow the manager of the municipal authority to dump a half-million gallons of septic waste collected by his private business without paying fees or following environmental regulations, state investigators alleged Thursday.
Rodman Lucas, operations manager of the Wrightstown municipal authority and owner of Aqua Clean Toilet Systems, allegedly gave himself what amounted to kickbacks thanks to an under-the-table agreement with Mayor Thomas Harper, who is also chairman of the authority’s board.
The pact, the New Jersey state comptroller said in a report, allowed Aqua Clean to dump unfiltered septic waste collected at homes and businesses into a township sewer system manhole for free, sparing Lucas from paying $21,000 in disposal fees to the Wrightstown Municipal Utilities Authority.
“This arrangement … undermines public confidence in local government,” Comptroller Philip James Degnan said in a statement, calling the alleged scheme “alarming.”
Degnan’s office has no prosecution powers but has referred the case to the Attorney General’s Office for further review. State officials will also consider whether ethics or environmental violations occurred.
Lucas and Harper did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
From 2015 to 2018, the comptroller said, Aqua Clean dumped more than 565,000 gallons of waste at the municipal authority. Lucas allegedly provided varying explanations for his deposits to authority employees and when asked about it at a public meeting.
According to Degnan’s report, Lucas and Harper did not test or filter the waste from Aqua Clean’s deposits before dumping it unfiltered or untreated into the municipal authority’s sewer system. Beyond allegedly failing to analyze the environmental effects of the dumping, Aqua Clean did not use procedures for dumping set forth by the state Department of Environmental Protection or notify the DEP that the municipal authority was accepting septic waste.
The report also alleges that Lucas and Harper did not get approval for or inform the utility’s board of their agreement and that both tried to downplay the agreement to investigators while also declaring they had the power to make such deals.
Lucas, subpoenaed by the state comptroller’s office, asserted his Fifth Amendment right when questioned, its report says. Later, he and the municipal authority said in responses to the state that the dumping caused no harm and that the municipal authority “financially benefited from the arrangement” because it borrowed tools and equipment from Lucas in exchange for the septic-waste deposits, the comptroller’s report said.
It was unclear why Harper agreed to the dumping. Harper told the comptroller that he authorized the deposits but “didn’t think it was important,” according to the report.
Employees at the municipal authority became frustrated with Aqua Clean’s dumping because it added to their workload, which normally only consists of processing waste generated by its sewer system, the comptroller said. An anonymous tipster notified the state of the alleged scheme.
Municipal authority board members learned of the agreement when Harper’s brother, a township maintenance employee, brought it up at a public meeting and said residents were asking him about it, the report said.
“It’s not a secret,” Lucas said of the waste deposits when pressed, according to meeting minutes cited in the comptroller’s report. He said he was recording them when the authority treasurer said she needed to keep records.
“It looks like you’re doing it in the dark of the night," township treasurer Judy Harrington told him, "because I don’t have any records.”