DISCLAIMER: This story includes an audio recording, obtained from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, that has not been edited, and contains offensive language that is not suitable for children.
We get phone calls and emails all the time from people in the Chicago region saying something along the lines of, “We’re sick of how government works here, what can we do to make things better?”
The most immediate answer we’d give: Start paying attention to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, or MWRD – the old “Sanitary District.” This is a public agency that clearly needs more scrutiny from the public.
Why? Listen to an audio recording we obtained – after filing a lawsuit last month to get it – of a conversation earlier this year between an MWRD police officer and his colleague. The cop’s hand-held radio apparently was keyed “on” by mistake, and everything he said was broadcast over a State Police frequency and recorded.
Aside from spewing vulgar, sexist and racist vitriol, the officer relays just how little work he and many other MWRD employees actually do for taxpayers.
How much drinking and sleeping and hiding are done on the clock.
How much politics plays into hiring and other job-related decisions.
The image this portrays: Taxpayer money swirling down the drain, a bloated government workforce and, given the officer’s responsibilities, laughable security.
Keep in mind that, even though most people probably have little idea what the MWRD is or does, it’s a huge agency spending huge amounts of taxpayer money.
The agency treats sewage and handles flood control for much of the region. The agency has a budget of more than $1 billion and employs roughly 2,000 people. Nine commissioners are elected by the public to oversee things.
In one portion of the recording, the officer is apparently giving the colleague a tour of a secret hideout referred to as “the apartment” inside the Stickney water reclamation plant where employees nap, watch TV, play cards and drink alcohol on the job. The officer tells him, “I’m going to show you this, I’m going to trust that you’re not a f—— plant from some clout-heavy mother f—– who’s here to front us out.” Click to listen.
The officer talks about how he has a duffel bag with a pillow and blanket and later says, “Everyone here is sleeping. The engineers, everyone that’s here on midnights, they’re all f—— sleeping somewhere, too.” Click to listen.
There’s also a stash of beer that he references, telling his colleague to “help yourself” but “don’t f—— take the last one.” Click to listen.
The officer also talks about rampant clout hiring at the agency, saying in reference to MWRD employees: “Just assume everyone here is here on a phone call. I mean not just our department, everybody. Every f—— s—head who’s a laborer. Everybody. Just assume they all got clout and deal with them accordingly.” Click to listen.
He goes on to analyze the Chicago Blackhawks, and refers to women with the “c” word and also uses the “n” word.
Apparently referring to Martin Luther King Day and the assassin who killed the civil rights icon, the officer jokes that “white guys . . . call it James Earl Ray day.” Click to listen.
FOX 32 broke the initial story about the secret hideaway, but the MWRD initially wouldn’t give up the recording so the Better Government Association filed suit, accusing the agency of violating the Illinois Freedom of Information, the state law guaranteeing public access to public records.
We obtained a copy of the audio on Wednesday, and FOX ended up getting a copy from State Police this week as well and airing another story Wednesday night. Here’s the link to the FOX web version.
The MWRD’s executive director, David St. Pierre, told us he was appalled by the officer’s comments, noting the cop is in the process of being fired. Five other MWRD workers were suspended without pay, and one other employee opted to retire.
St. Pierre said while the behavior was “troubling” and represents lax supervision, he doesn’t believe employee misconduct is rampant or that political connections dictate hiring decisions.
“We have extremely skilled employees for the most part, so at the end of the day . . . [the situation with the officer was] troubling but certainly not in my mind representative of the district at large and who we are and how we do our business,” he said.
The officer could not be reached for comment. But based on the recording, he may consider himself a model employee.
As the cop tells his colleague one point, “I’m a thinker not a stinker.”
This blog post was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9030.
DISCLAIMER: This audio recording, obtained from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, has not been edited, and contains offensive language that is not suitable for children.