Is the FBI investigating Cincinnati's sewer system? Well, that depends on who you ask

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati city leaders are trying to quiet rumors that the Federal Bureau of Investigations is looking into the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati, the agency that runs and fixes the sewer system in the county.

In a November employee memo and newsletter, Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black said he’s unaware of a single city employee who’s been questioned by the FBI.

“I want you to know the city has no direct knowledge of any active investigation of MSD, nor have we been contracted by the FBI,” Black wrote in the employee newsletter.  

The FBI doesn’t comment on active or closed investigations.

Rumors of an FBI investigation have jeopardized the future of the sewer district, which is currently operated by the city. And the news is all imploding at a time when county leaders – who lay claim to the sewer district – are threatening to fight the city for control of the agency once a contract expires in 2018.

It’s an important battle because the district is completing a $3.2 billion overhaul of Hamilton County’s sewers – a move that, year after year, has driven up the amount you pay on your sewer bill.

Every year, the average persons pays $800 – enough to gift yourself two 50” HD televisions this Christmas – to use the county’s sewers. Who controls the sewer district and how well it’s managed might impact how much everyone in the county shells out to pay for those sewers in the future.

Last month, WCPO reported two of the county’s three commissioners were calling for a termination of the city’s control of the sewer district over the FBI investigation. The city has been operating all construction and maintenance of sewers in the county since 1968, when the two governments inked a 50-year deal.

On Wednesday, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and some City Council members sent a letter back to the county to “reject most of what the county letters alleges about our well-run MSD.”

Cranley’s letter called the FBI investigation a “rumor” and accused the county of micro-managing the sewer district.

But County Commissioner Greg Hartmann said Wednesday he’s confident the sewer district is under investigation and still believes the sewer system is poorly managed.

“There is an ongoing investigation,” Hartmann said. “I’m concerned about the overall management of the MSD over the last couple of years.”

County Commissioner Todd Portune said it doesn’t matter if the FBI is investigating the sewer district – the city manager is, and that’s enough to make him concerned. Portune said Black began investigating irregularities with vendor contracts in October but the city never clued the county into those issues.

“Those are the kind of things that continue to be problematic and concerning to us,” Portune said. “We not only had a right to know that immediately, but we needed to know about all of that immediately.”

While Cranley called an FBI investigation a “rumor” in his letter to the county, he also said the city has reached out to the FBI about an investigation.

“Finally, with regard to the possible FBI investigation, we are reaching out to the FBI to pledge full support and collaboration,” Cranley wrote. “We hope that the county will do the same. If the county has any information about potential wrongdoing, we ask you to provide it to the City (sic) immediately so that we can investigate.”

Hartmann said he does agree with the city on one thing: A conversation on the future of the sewer needs to start soon.

“I agree that we start a conversation,” Hartmann said. “The current system doesn’t’ work very well.” 

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