Rigging bids key to probe by feds
Water treatment equipment at center of federal investigation into local corruption.
Richard Whitt - Staff
Wednesday, October 4, 2000
Another Fulton County company and its owner have been charged with rigging millions of dollars in bids on equipment for area water treatment plants, including the much troubled Hemphill Water Treatment Plant in Atlanta.
Jerry Wickliffe and the Wickliffe Services Co. are charged with conspiring to rig bids on the sale of valves and pumps used at water and wastewater treatment plants in Atlanta, in Gwinnett County and elsewhere in Georgia and Alabama.
Wickliffe has been cooperating with authorities in the ongoing federal investigation and is expected to enter a plea next week. His attorney, Craig Gillen, declined to comment for publication.
The charges against Wickliffe are the latest to come out of a sweeping investigation into bid-rigging and government corruption by the Atlanta office of the U.S. Justice Department's Antitrust Division, the U.S. attorney and the FBI.
Wickliffe and unidentified individuals are charged with conspiring to suppress and eliminate competition and to rig bids on the sales of butterfly valves and venturi flow tubes that are used to measure and direct water at treatment plants, according to federal court documents.
In addition to his role in the $36 million overhaul of the Hemphill plant, Wickliffe is accused of rigging bids on the Chattahoochee Clearwell project, the $38 million Lanier Filter Plant Expansion in Gwinnett County, the Town Creek Water Treatment Plant in Macon and the W.P.C. Digester Improvement Project in Athens.
"By rigging the bids on equipment for major plants in Georgia and Alabama, the parties to this scheme picked the pockets of the taxpayers," said Joel Klein, assistant attorney general in charge of the Antitrust Division, in announcing the charges.
The Wickliffe case grew out of 1996 bid-rigging in Cherokee County involving Eco-Tech Inc. and owner Herbert H. Timmerman. Timmerman pleaded guilty to one count of bid rigging in November 1999 and began cooperating with authorities.
Timmerman's attorney, Don Samuel, predicted at the time that more indictments would follow. "I think it's safe to say . . . that there are at least a half-dozen individual and corporate targets who will be indicted or are facing criminal charges as a result of Mr. Timmerman's cooperation," he said, according to court transcripts.
The Eco-Tech case at first led authorities to Fred B. Prewitt, chairman of the Atlanta Civil Service Board and a close friend of Mayor Bill Campbell. Prewitt was indicted in June for income tax fraud for failing to report income from his dealings with contractors, including Eco-Tech. Timmerman told authorities that he had hired Prewitt as a consultant in seeking the city contract, paying him more than $200,000 in fees. Prewitt has pleaded innocent.
Wickliffe listed Prewitt's company, FBP Contractors, on invoices as a co-supplier of equipment that he sold to Hemphill. But Wickliffe told the Journal-Constitution last year that Prewitt wasn't involved in the sale. Overhaul of the 100-year-old Hemphill plant has been plagued with valves that don't operate properly and with construction delays.
Eco-Tech and Wickliffe, competitors in furnishing equipment for water treatment plants in Georgia and Alabama, conspired with others to fix prices and rig bids, according to court documents and attorneys familiar with the cases.
Wickliffe and Timmerman met with others at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Buckhead where they rigged prices for equipment for the Hemphill facility, according to attorneys.
In a series of meetings, Wickliffe, Timmerman and others agreed on prices and decided who would get each project, attorneys said.
The price-fixing investigation involves at least six other Atlanta area companies and may implicate other public officials, attorneys said.
The scheme to rig bids continued from January 1994 through late April 1998, according to court documents.
The one-count felony charge against Wickliffe and Wickliffe Services was filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on June 2 and had been sealed until recently.
Wickliffe and Wickliffe Services are charged with violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act,
which carries a maximum fine of $10 million for corporations and a maximum penalty of
three years imprisonment and a $350,000 fine for individuals. Wickliffe currently heads a
company called Water Wise, which has a contract with Fulton County to install a temporary
waste water treatment plant in north Fulton County. The facility, which hasn't been built,
could treat up to 1.5 million gallons per day while the county seeks a long-term solution
to expand its wastewater treatment capacity for the Johns Creek Basin.