Palm Beach News

Palm Beach Airport Consultant Tied to Cleveland Bribery Scheme

Now that three former Palm Beach County commissioners have gone to prison on federal corruption charges, it's tempting believe that local government has been reborn in a cleaner, more-efficient fashion. But of course, the cynics among us are still trying to sort out the damage that ex-commissioners Mary McCarty, Warren Newell, and Tony Masilotti have done to the cash-strapped county. If they were accepting gifts from developers and steering contracts to favored bond-underwriting firms, what other businesses enjoyed an especially cozy relationship with them?

Which brings us to CH2M Hill, a Colorado-based engineering firm that wins government contracts all over the country. Here in Palm Beach, the company is the primary consultant for construction projects at the county's airports. So far, a contract that began in 2005 for "general airport planning and design" has topped $11.6 million (the County Commission approved the latest cost increase in January).

That's a nice chunk of change, especially for a firm that has been tied to at least one major  corruption scandal in the past five years. In indictments filed in 2004 and 2005, federal prosecutors linked CH2M Hill to a bribery scheme in East Cleveland, just outside Cleveland, Ohio.

The feds alleged that CH2M Hill won a no-bid, $3.9 million contract to manage East Cleveland's water system after hiring a local consultant to pass bribes to the city's then-mayor, Emmanuel Onunwor.

CH2M Hill paid Ralph Tyler $10,000 a month, and he dutifully passed on a portion of the payments to middleman Nate Gray, who was later convicted on corruption charges. Gray gave a cut of the cash to Onunwor in plain white envelopes.

After the FBI arrested Onunwor in 2003, he admitted steering contracts to Tyler at Gray's request. The mayor was convicted on corruption charges. But CH2M Hill was never charged. Its lawyer said that the company had a consulting contract with Tyler, and that Gray was a subcontractor, but that CH2M Hill was unaware of Gray's payments to Onunwor.

CH2M Hill continues to work on federal and local government contracts across the country. But do we really need them in a county that's seen more than its fair share of corruption scandals?

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab