Water Industry News

Accused ECO Worker Quits Planning Board

by Bob Dunn, Oct 17

A former ECO Resources employee – fired for allegedly embezzling money from ECO clients and facing a criminal investigation – has resigned a government post, saying she’s leaving the area.

Officials at municipal utility districts and with ECO Resources confirmed that Janet E. Trentham of Missouri City was terminated about four weeks ago. The company believes she had been running a scam in which phony bills were presented to seven or eight MUDs, and that Trentham allegedly kept the proceeds when those bills were paid.

Trentham could not be reached for comment on this story.

One MUD – Harris County MUD #165, reportedly lost $145,000 in the scheme, while representatives from other utility districts say they believe their losses were limited to $10,000 or less.

ECO Resources officials have hired Dave Gillis & Associates of Dallas to conduct a forensic audit at the company, and alerted Fort Bend District Attorney John Healey that they’ll forward the findings to his office.

Meanwhile, Trentham abruptly resigned her position as board member on the Missouri City Planning and Zoning Commission, although her term ran through June 2007. A spokesman for the commission, who asked that his name not be used, said “I understand she’s going to be possibly moving out of the area.”

Jim Brown, who oversees ECO operations, said Monday he knew Trentham had resigned from the planning commission and had also been made aware she’d told others she was moving.

“I’m going to pass this on to our legal team,” he added.

ECO Resources, which operates and manages more than 125 MUDs, was founded by Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert, who was CEO of the company for 13 years. ECO since has been sold to Southwest Water Co. of Los Angeles, for whom Hebert serves as a consultant. Brown is regional vice president for Southwest Water’s Houston Regional Services Group, which includes ECO.

Brown said ECO’s forensic audit has not been complete. When it’s finished, the results are expected to be distributed to Healey’s office, and also to ECO Resources’ MUD clients.

Last week, Hebert and Brown both said ECO will make full restitution, including interest, to MUD clients who lost money from the billing scam.

Jimmy Thompson, who serves on the board of Sienna LID, said
Trentham attended his district’s board meetings and served in a consultant’s role, acting as liaison between the board and ECO.

“Janet was very capable,” he said. “Any time we asked a question, she was always able to get us the answer.”

Thompson said ECO has replaced Trentham with another manager to serve in that same role. He also said Sienna LID didn’t suffer any losses in the alleged scam, as far as the board knows now.

However, the district “reserved the right” to bring in its own forensic auditor in the future, Thompson said, if the board believes such action is necessary.

Richard Muller of Houston law firm Allen Boone Humphries Robinson LLP, who represents Sienna Plantation MUD #1, said ECO already has made restitution on about $10,000 that the district lost in the scam, plus interest. Restitution of about $2,000 also was made to Sienna Plantation MUD #2, he said.

“The districts that I represent are waiting on the report from Dave Gillis & Associates that is due this month, but those districts will also engage their own forensic accountants to review both the scope and the results of that report,” Muller said. “Once that review is completed, the boards will consider what further action is warranted. ECO has agreed to reimburse the districts
the costs associated with the districts’ forensic accountants.

“Obviously, this is an unfortunate situation, but I am pleased with ECO’s swift reaction to the problem and their candor with our firm and the districts,” Muller said. “I do not think that ECO could have handled the situation any better than they have to date.”