WHITEHALL, Wis. – A Wisconsin prosecutor is investigating allegations that an elected official in the state’s most active frac sand county used his office to advance his own sand mining interests while cloaking them in secrecy.
The fiery clash in Trempealeau County, just across the Mississippi River from Winona, is the latest ethics controversy to surface in the region’s burgeoning frac sand industry, as some officials seek to own a piece of the boom even while sitting on powerful local boards that regulate mining.
In the Trempealeau County case, Board Supervisor David Suchla has been accused of threatening a high-level county administrator to keep silent about a business relationship Suchla had with a large Texas-based frac sand producer interested in mining sand in Suchla’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 says in a sworn statement that Suchla told Lien to “forget he saw” the document and “nip it in the bud or else.” Lien confirmed Miller’s account as accurate.
Miller’s complaint, which includes other allegations against Suchla, is in the hands of LaCrosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke, who told the Star Tribune that he will decide over the next few weeks whether to prosecute under a state law that bars local government officials from personally benefiting from their positions. Miller could take her complaint to the Wisconsin Department of Justice if Gruenke’s preliminary investigation goes nowhere.
Suchla, one of 17 district supervisors on the County Board, confirmed in an interview that he’s in the frac sand business, but he declined to elaborate and denied any self-dealing as a public official.
Suchla said he has intentionally recused himself from any frac sand votes and consulted with the County Board’s lawyer before pursuing any moneymaking in sand.
“She can say whatever,” Suchla said in reference to Miller. “She’s full of [expletive].”
Said Miller: “I’m talking about an abuse of power. I’m not going to sit back and be quiet about this.”
The ethics charge surfaced just as the County Board is to vote Monday night 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 frac sand mining, processing and rail loading than any other county in Wisconsin or Minnesota.
Both states hold vast deposits of crush-resistant sand now in high demand by the oil and gas industry as a vital ingredient in a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing.
Miller, a former newspaper editor and reporter who was elected to the County Board in 2012, said in an interview that Suchla is an influential member of the County Board who sits on the powerful finance committee. Her complaint alleges that he began advocating in 2011 for county-owned land to be used for frac sand production in a way that would benefit his business partners.
“At no time did he disclose he had a financial or personal interest in these businesses,” the complaint says.
Miller alleges that Suchla is a partner in a local frac sand company known as Sand Tran. The company has been trying to set up a rail spur and frac sand mine in partnership with Hi-Crush Partners, a publicly traded Texas company with two Wisconsin mines and yearly production of more than 1 billion tons of frac sand.
Attached to Miller’s complaint is a Sand Tran investment offer to neighbors of the proposed site; the return address on the offer sheet matches Suchla’s private residence in Independence.
Suchla is not a member of the Environment and Land Use Committee, which decides frac sand permitting requests. But meeting minutes attached to Miller’s complaint show that he has appeared before the committee with principals of Sand Tran. At one such meeting in 2011, the company sought a lease of county-owned land.
Tom Bice, chairman of the Environment and Land Use Committee, said in an interview that he’s known “for a while” that Suchla has some sort of financial interest in the local frac sand industry. But he said Suchla has “made a point” to keep it to himself and avoid influencing colleagues.
“So maybe it is a little sneaky,” Bice said. “But I wouldn’t think so.”
Bice, who has sided with Suchla and others in support of using county land to generate frac sand revenue, termed Miller’s complaint “internal politics” and said he regrets that she brought it forward. Of Suchla, he said: “I don’t think he’s a corrupt guy. He’s a very abrasive person, so he upsets a lot of people. That’s just the way he is. He’s just very blunt.”
Irate phone call
Miller’s complaint does not cite specific examples of Suchla trying to influence colleagues on frac sand matters, but says: “I believe he used promises of favors, threats of political retribution and just plain bullying.”
Miller’s complaint also alleges that Suchla abused his authority last month by calling county Health Director Sherry Rhoda one week after the county health board approved a resolution advancing the sand moratorium. When Rhoda returned Suchla’s call, the complaint said, he immediately put her on speaker phone with local frac sand investors who grew irate and “grilled” her about the moratorium.
Suchla said very little during the phone call except to apologize to Rhoda for putting her on the “hot seat,” the complaint said. Rhoda did not return telephone calls from the Star Tribune about the alleged incident and Suchla did not take questions about it.
Lien, whose office is at the center of every frac sand request, said Suchla periodically visited him with Sand Tran partners to discuss frac sand permitting processes — a practice that Lien characterized as inappropriate.
Lien said he suspected Suchla had a financial interest in sand mining — a suspicion that was confirmed by a document found in the courthouse three months ago by one of his staff members. Lien said the document described a business association between Hi-Crush and Sand Tran, listing Suchla and other county residents as insiders at Sand Tran. Lien said the document was found by county employee Nick Gamroth and quickly obtained by the County Board’s lawyer.
Lien said that, confronted by Suchla, he asked the county supervisor how he could “forget” what he had seen in the document. That’s when Suchla repeated his warning to “nip this in the bud and we’ll forget about it,” Lien said.
“I kind of took it as it was some kind of threat,” said Lien, who noted that Suchla could attempt to cut his department budget as an influential member of the finance committee.
Suchla told the Star Tribune that he’s entitled to work in the sand business, just as farmers on the County Board are entitled to make a living in agriculture, another permitted industry.
Suchla said he supports the use of county lands in the frac sand business, saying it would be good for county taxpayers.