CHICAGO — As president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Terry O’Brien’s job is to maintain the safety of the region’s drinking water by reining in big polluters and making sure their waste is properly treated.

   As 50% owner of an environmental consulting firm, the same Mr. O’Brien’s job is to make life as easy as possible for his dozens of corporate clients, some of them heavy polluters. As his corporate Web site puts it in bold-face type, “Our first priority is to our clients.”

   Do Mr. O’Brien’s twin roles present a conflict of interest? How can an official be paid by polluters at the same time he’s supposed to be policing them?

   That’s exactly the question Mr. O’Brien faces as he seeks to move from heading the board of the relatively obscure, little-watched water agency to a much higher profile post: president of the Cook County Board. He is one of at least five Democratic candidates for the Cook County post, and some consider him to be the front-runner in the race.

   There is no evidence that Mr. O’Brien’s firm, K-Plus Environmental LLC, or sister firms have been retained by the MWRD, as the district is known, either as a contractor or subcontractor, according to a joint review conducted by Crain’s and the Better Government Assn.

   But at least four of Mr. O’Brien’s K-Plus clients are directly regulated by MWRD and participate in the district’s “significant industrial user” program. In fact, one client, a division of chemical producer Nalco Holding Co., is listed on the district’s Web site as its sixth-largest payer of user fees to clean up its pollution, having paid $1.7 million to the district for pollution in the past three years.

   Mr. O’Brien says the user-fee program is run by district staff and not the board, and that he helped Nalco and the others only on non-MWRD matters.

    But BGA Executive Director Andy Shaw termed the situation “the political equivalent of the fox guarding the chicken house.”

   “It’s an outrageous conflict of interest and a dereliction of duty for the head of an agency responsible for ensuring that we have clean water to drink and play in, to work for a company that protects the polluters,” Mr. Shaw said.  “It’s ‘dirty’ politics, literally and figuratively.”

    Mr. O’Brien, 53, has been on the board since 1988 and headed it since 1997. A North Sider, he listed his affiliation with a group of companies collectively known as K-Plus in ethics forms filed with the county clerk, but they drew little notice until he announced his race to replace Todd Stroger as County Board chief.

   In an interview on Thursday, Mr. O’Brien said he has been involved with K-Plus “pretty much since I got out of college.” Documents provided by his campaign indicate that he works for and holds a 50% interest in K-Plus Environmental, and that he has held an interest in sister firms, including K-Plus Plant & Environmental Services Inc., K-Plus Engineering Ltd. and K-Plus Industrial Services Inc.

  Mr. O’Brien earned at least $1,200 a year from each of 10 K-Plus firms, according to his county financial disclosure. He also is paid $80,000 a year to head the MWRD board.

   Mr. O’Brien said he is “project manager in charge of chemical waste disposal and transportation” for K-Plus Environmental — not director of marketing, as a 2000 newspaper article indicated. But the title really doesn’t count, given his 50% ownership interest.

   K-Plus’ Web site describes it as “a full environmental consulting firm committed to working with business owners and property owners.” The firm can provide “turnkey comprehensive service to totally manage your environmental issues,” it says. Included: “Environmental assessments and audits through remediation management and permitting. . . .Our job is not finished until you are completely satisfied.”

   Mr. O’Brien confirmed that he personally handled work for Nalco, Borg Warner Automotive, ITW/Signode and S & C Electric — all of which show up on the district’s online listing of 500 or so “significant” industrial polluters. But, he said, he only worked on chemical waste disposal and transportation issues that did not involve the MWRD.

    The companies involved “used other consultants” for that, Mr. O’Brien said.

    K-Plus’ Web site also lists as clients several top Chicago law firms with environmental practices, as well as some growing suburban cities that need the MWRD’s permission to connect its sewers to the district’s removal and treatment system.

    Mr. O’Brien said he doesn’t know if any of the firms had business with the district. But if they did, he said, it would be handled by staff, as would sewer connections — not by the board.

   Even though industrial users sometimes will appeal the user fee imposed by the district, those matters are handled only by district staff, Mr. O’Brien said. “We’re strictly policy and procedure. We don’t get involved in day-to-day operations.”

   Another commissioner, Deborah Shore, who ran as a reformer, said the board gets regular reports on how the user-fee system works as part of its budget process, but she does not recall voting on any related matter in her 2 1/2 years on the board.
   The board may occasionally set rates or revise rules, Ms. Shore said, but that has not happened during her tenure.

    Mr. O’Brien said he never has had to recuse himself on any board matter involving K-Plus because none has come up for a vote.

    In announcing for the Cook County Board, he cited his long experience at the MWRD in managing budgets and keeping taxes low, and said he wants to bring the same kind of expertise to the board.

>> Read the partner story at Crain’s Chicago Business.