As he sought his first elected office in 2010, Baldwin County Commissioner Tucker Dorsey faced tough accusations from his rival that ties to the county’s biggest developers and one of its largest private sewer systems would make it hard for him to avoid conflicts of interest.
Six years later those ties and questions about business relationships still hang around Dorsey’s neck even as he has become one of the county’s most powerful politicians.During his race to unseat Wayne Gruenloh as District 3 commissioner, Dorsey’s ties to the for-profit utility Baldwin County Sewer Service became a major topic of local media coverage.
Gruenloh charged that his opponent was too close to BCSS and its owner Clarence Burke, for whom Dorsey has worked many years.
While he didn’t work for BCSS, Dorsey was employed by Burke-owned real estate development companies and Gruenloh hinted strongly that his opponent was being backed by business associates who would benefit from having a county commissioner in their pocket.
According to news stories from the time, Dorsey’s camp fired back that Gruenloh had sewer connections of his own, although it was based upon accounting work done nearly 30 years earlier. With Baldwin being the only county in Alabama exempt from state regulation of sewer companies, private sewer companies represented big money.
Gruenloh’s campaign contributions were dwarfed by the newcomer’s and Dorsey won the seat with 55 percent of the vote. Prior to the vote, Gruenloh told al.com the $56,000 Dorsey had raised in the race is “an awfully high amount for a commission race. Somebody wants this seat pretty badly.”
Over the past two months, Lagniappe has looked into Dorsey’s connections to scores of businesses and property owners’ associations started by him or Burke over the years.
As has been detailed in previous stories, dozens and dozens of businesses were formed listing just a few addresses as headquarters, begging the question of who exactly is connected to whom and whether that could put the county commissioner in a position to help those who in particular have direct dealings with him or his boss.
Because his business associations became an issue during the election and BCSS does business with the county, Dorsey sought an ethics ruling prior to taking office in order to determine what his course of action should be when it came to issues touching on Burke’s sewer company.
“I asked for the ethics opinion pretty early on with regards to Baldwin County Sewer Service. I wanted to clear up the air with everybody that there wasn’t a question about whether it was an issue because it was an issue in the campaign in 2010. A lot of people were like ‘he’s just going over there to do sewer work,’ which is not where my heart is in serving Baldwin County,” Dorsey told Lagniappe.
Because Dorsey works for one of Burke’s many businesses — a real estate company called Magnolia River Management — owned by another of Burke’s businesses that also owns a sizeable chunk of his sewer company, the Alabama Ethics Commission said the connection was too close.
“Based on the facts as provided and the above law, a member of the Baldwin County Commission may not vote, attempt to influence or otherwise participate in issues relating to the business dealings between the Baldwin County Sewer Service, LLC and the Baldwin County Commission,” the advisory opinion reads.
And Dorsey has dutifully abstained from voting or otherwise acting on most issues concerning BCSS — but not all.
In 2013 Dorsey personally nominated and voted in a new member to the East Central Baldwin County Water, Sewer and Fire Authority. This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy except for the fact that at the time ECBC was in the middle of a lawsuit with Burke’s sewer company, as well as the county, Robertsdale and Summerdale.
The suit began in 2009 as a fight over ECBC’s attempts to charge a franchise fee for any expansion by BCSS, Summerdale and Robertsdale into the areas it serves. The case has bounced back and forth on various appeals, with both sides winning favorable rulings at one point or another. In May the case was kicked back to the appeals court after the Alabama Supreme Court ruled BCSS, Summerdale and Robertsdale do have standing to sue ECBC.
Dorsey was dismissive of his involvement in placing a new member on the ECBC board when his employer’s interests were at odds with that utility, even though it would seem to fly counter to the 2010 Ethics Commission opinion. He said the county’s involvement in the suit was reason enough for him not to have attempted to influence the board.
“Well, the County Commission was also in that lawsuit in opposition to East Central Baldwin as well as a couple of municipalities, and the discussions we had with ECBC and board members never were associated with the lawsuit. And it’s the commissioner at large that approves the appointment to that board,” he said, adding, “They weren’t given any direction by me to do anything or not do anything. In fact, I never talked to board members about the lawsuit. Moreso from the county standpoint than the BCSS standpoint.”
Dorsey also claimed the ECBC board had forwarded candidates to the County Commission for approval and he was not involved in their selection.
“Mr. [Jim] Burkett was a recommendation of the board that they put through similar to hospital authority boards. They said ‘here’s who we’d like you to appoint to the board,’” he said in an interview last week.
However, minutes from a Feb. 26, 2013, commission work session paint a very different picture. According to those minutes, it was Dorsey who found Burkett and nominated him for a position on the ECBC board.
“And I’ll be honest with you. I have put out things on Twitter and Facebook. We’ve — I’ve talked to the Central Baldwin Chamber, trying to get names of people that would be willing to serve. This has not been easy to find people that would serve. I’ve found Mr. Burkett through going through emails of road requests and people that we’ve talked to about roads in that area, trying to see if some of those folks would serve, I’m telling you, trying to find folks that would be willing to serve,” Dorsey said in the meeting. “Mr. Burkett is a retired FBI agent and is — has the time and energy that he said that he’d like to — to serve on that if it’s acceptable with y’all. I put his name up.”
Dorsey and the other commissioners voted unanimously at the March 7, 2013, regular meeting to approve the placement of Burkett as well as Cheryl Russell on the board.
Just before nominating Burkett, according to work session minutes, Dorsey also said he had gone to visit the three sitting ECBC board members along with County Administrator David Brewer to discuss ECBC’s direction and talk to them about providing financial information to the commission.
“Okay. I met with the three — well, Mr. Brewer and I met with the three-member board yesterday. And they made some — Just had a conversation generally about the direction they’re going in,” Dorsey said in the minutes. Later Dorsey said, “Well, we had some discussion yesterday. I — I had made a request or they’d offered to send some information at that meeting, financial information, past due accounts, information that we hadn’t gotten. And they said they were going to get that this week. And part of that just being the consideration. They’re trying to make a case that they’re making some improvements to how the Water Authority is being operated. And so we — I’ve kind of agreed with them that we’d consider it for a little bit longer.”
Interviewed last week about the appointment of Burkett and the meeting with ECBC board members, Dorsey claimed the lawsuit presented no financial interest for Burke and Baldwin County Sewer System.
“There’s no financial benefit to Burke on that lawsuit. And like I said before, Baldwin County Commission is enjoined with Summerdale, Robertsdale and Baldwin County Sewer in that case,” he said.
But in kicking the case back down to the appellate court, the Alabama Supreme Court said unequivocally that Burke and BCSS do indeed have a financial stake in how the lawsuit ultimately unfolds due to ECBC’s efforts to charge a franchise fee.
“The threat of the imposition of the fee alone clearly is a threatened injury to BCSS’s legal interests that gives BCSS standing to challenge the 2008 amendment. BCSS also purchased Summerdale’s sewer system as part of its plan to interconnect all of its sewer services, a plan that cannot proceed without being affected by the 2008 amendment. This also constitutes a tangible interest that gives BCSS standing to challenge the 2008 amendment,” the Supreme Court wrote.
Asked generally whether it would present ethical issues for a public official to nominate and appoint members to the board of a public entity actively engaged in a lawsuit against a private company in which that official is a paid employee, Alabama Ethics Commission General Counsel Hugh Evans echoed themes present in Dorsey’s 2010 Ethics opinion. As always, Evans wrote hypothetically about the law and not about this specific issue.
“Remember, a public official may not use their public position in such a way as to provide a benefit to themselves, a family member or a business with which they are associated. That would include their employer,” Evans wrote in an email.
Dorsey says he has carefully avoided direct conflicts of interest, but argues that just voting for something related to a former business contact or someone Burke is involved with financially does not create an ethical dilemma.
He has voted numerous times for payments, zoning changes and other matters related to businesses owned by people who have direct financial ties to his boss. And in the case of Metal Roofing Center and Supply LLC, he voted for county payments to the company even though Burke is among a few guarantors of a 2012 SBA loan for the business. Though the county has paid MRCS less than $7,000 in the past four years, according to records, it is still a company in which Dorsey acknowledges an interest by his employer.
“Everything MRCS does is on a bid. There aren’t [sole source]. All the work being done through there is bid work. I don’t see the conflict,” he said.
Another example where Dorsey’s associations might raise eyebrows revolves around the engineering firm Preble-Rish, which has done extensive work for the county since its founding in 2011. The company has been paid more than $1.7 million since that time, according to county records.
While Preble-Rish is a regional engineering firm, its local office is listed in state records as being incorporated by Phase Two LLC. Phase Two is listed in state records as having been formed in December 2010 by John Avent and Joseph Bullock. Avent is currently a vice president of Preble-Rish and someone who county records list as having personally purchased land from Dorsey in the Isle of Pines subdivision in 2003.
Both Avent and Bullock show up in state records as agents with a company called Engineering Development Services LLC that was formed in 1999 and dissolved in 2014. Those same records also show Dorsey and Wolf Creek Industries LLC, a company owned by Burke, listed as members of EDS until December of 2010, when they were removed. Dorsey took office in November 2010.
Less than three weeks after Dorsey was removed from EDS, Preble-Rish was incorporated. Roughly 10 months after incorporating, Preble-Rish began receiving payments for work done for the county, according to online records. Preble-Rish is listed among the list of on-call engineering companies used by the county.
Asked about his connections with Preble-Rish, Dorsey said it has been his philosophy as commissioner to make sure work is spread around between local companies. At the same time, he said any work done by Preble-Rish was won through bid.
“Nobody gets in without bidding fairly and through the process. We’ve got to follow Alabama law for bid work. That’s it,” he said.
According to Baldwin County Engineer Cal Markert, though, engineering services are not bid out and firms are simply selected based upon “availability, experience and price.” He said if a firm wants to join the list of the county’s “on-call” engineering firms, they simply let the engineering department know and that is taken to the County Commission and added to the list.
“Preble-Rish was added to on-call November 2008, but they used to be named EDS and they are now Dewberry [Preble-Rish] I believe,” he said.
A search of county payment records shows EDS first started receiving payments from the county in May 2010 as Dorsey was running for office. The company received just over $70,000 in payments from that time until April 2013 when its last payment is listed.
Markert said there are some engineering projects that might be bid, but was not sure if work done by Preble-Rish had been bid.
“But either way it is not bid whether over a $100,000 or not. If over a $100,000 then commission selects on individual project basis based on qualifications of engineer firm. If under $100,000 then the commission already selected and added to the list and we use the firms in the list,” Markert said.
Lagniappe has requested a list of any bid work done by the company.