Wisconsin official accused of self-dealing over sand
MINNEAPOLIS — A prosecutor is investigating allegations that a county supervisor in western Wisconsin used his office to advance his own business interests in the region's booming silica sand industry.
The clash in Trempealeau County, just across the Mississippi River from Winona, is the latest ethics controversy to surface in an industry where some local officials have sought to benefit even while sitting on boards that regulate mining, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported.
Trempealeau County Board Supervisor David Suchla has been accused of threatening a high-level county administrator to keep silent about a business relationship that Suchla had with a Texas-based company interested in mining silica sand in the supervisor's district. The administrator, Environment and Land Use Director Kevin Lien, recently discovered Suchla's business ties from a document that someone inadvertently left on a table at the courthouse.
Suchla's accuser is fellow County Supervisor Sally Miller, who has said in a sworn statement that Suchla told Lien to "forget he saw" the document and "nip it in the bud or else." Lien said Miller's account is accurate.
La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke told the Star Tribune he will decide over the next few weeks whether to prosecute under a Wisconsin law that bars local government officials from personally benefiting from their positions.
Suchla confirmed to the newspaper he's in the silica sand business, but he declined to elaborate and denied any self-dealing as a public official. He said he has intentionally recused himself from any sand mining votes and consulted with the County Board's lawyer before pursuing any moneymaking in the sand business.
The ethics charge surfaced just as the board prepares to vote Monday on a proposed six- to 12-month permit moratorium, which could slam the brakes on mining in a county that has issued more permits for silica sand mining, processing and rail loading than any other county in Wisconsin or Minnesota.
Both states hold vast deposits of the crush-resistant sand, which is in high demand by the oil and gas industry as a vital ingredient in the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing.
Miller's complaint alleges Suchla began advocating in 2011 for county-owned land to be used for silica sand production in a way that would benefit his business partners. She alleges he's a partner in a local company called Sand Tran, which has been trying to set up a rail spur and sand mine in partnership with Hi-Crush Partners, a Texas company with two Wisconsin mines and yearly production of more than 1 billion tons.
Suchla is not a member of the board's Environment and Land Use Committee, which decides such permitting requests. But meeting minutes attached to Miller's complaint show he has appeared before the committee with principals of Sand Tran.
Committee chairman Tom Bice told the Star Tribune he's known "for a while" that Suchla has some sort of financial interest in the sand industry. But he said Suchla has "made a point" to keep it to himself and avoid influencing colleagues.
Miller's complaint does not cite specific examples of Suchla trying to influence colleagues on sand matters, but says: "I believe he used promises of favors, threats of political retribution and just plain bullying."
Lien, whose office handles every silica sand request, said Suchla periodically visited him with Sand Tran partners to discuss sand permitting processes, a practice that Lien characterized as inappropriate.
Lien said his suspicion that Suchla had a financial interest in sand mining was confirmed by a document found in the courthouse three months ago by one of his staff members. He said Suchla confronted him and repeated his warning to "nip this in the bud and we'll forget about it."
"I kind of took it as it was some kind of threat," said Lien, noting that Suchla could use his position to attempt to cut his department's budget.