PHILADELPHIA - Philadelphia's Streets Department opened an investigation of city trash workers and a private contractor after FOX 29 Investigates showed the mayor what we caught on tape.
Investigative Reporter Jeff Cole tells us the fallout from our probe has been swift.
It's known as the "Forgotten Bottom" neighborhood in Philly's Grays Ferry section – a tiny community of small homes and businesses bordered by Interstate 76, rail tracks and the Schuylkill River. It's quiet here, which is exactly what this crew was hoping for.
On Oct. 6, a lumbering, City of Philadelphia trash vehicle is backing up to an unmarked truck at the end of Harmony Street. The truck is chockablock full with construction debris, likely from a building demolition somewhere.
Two workers start heaving large planks of wood into trash truck 085151. As dust rises, dark bags, heavy with refuse, are tossed in.
A city worker from the trash hauler, in a yellow shirt, gets out to watch. On the other side, the apparent leader of the demo. crew pitches in.
They work on and on. A toilet goes in, and then another.
Video shows what looks to be the payoff under way. The guy who looks to be in charge, in the baseball hat, pulls out what appears to be his billfold and heads for the city worker. He seems to hand something to him as he reaches back to take it.
The work is nearly done. Another city worker appears in the video and comes around to give the guys a thumbs-up.
It's over. The trucks uncouple and depart.
The trash crew blows a red light and heads for South Philly, where they do a little curbside pickup for taxpayers.
What's going on "totally shouldn't be taking place," said the district's city councilman, Kenyatta Johnson.
It's a possible violation of the city's rock-hard rule that, according to City Hall, bans Streets Department workers from pocketing cash for private trash collection.
The councilman says he's disgusted.
"To see that there's some type of city employees in cahoots with a private contractor is definitely disheartening," Johnson says.
The footage could cost those city workers their jobs and, according to the Mayor's Office, that contractor may feel the heat from law enforcement.
All that construction debris we saw tossed into the trash truck will end up in a landfill at $60 a ton. It's not supposed to go there, at least not on the taxpayers' dime. Private demolition companies are supposed to pay for a dumpster and private trash pickup, but it's a lot cheaper this way, Cole reported.
Let's fast-forward to Oct. 25. Guess who has pulled up on Harmony? It appears to be the same demo crew. They wait, circle the block and return.
Then, here comes city trash truck No. 136010 going the wrong way down a one-way just after 2 p.m.
This time, it's big pieces of broken-up drywall filling the contractor's truck to the top.
We drive by to get a look. All of it is going straight in to the City trash truck.
We can't tell if it's the same city workers we saw the last time. But one guy relieving himself in a side lot looks to be the same city worker in yellow with the long hair who we noticed on Oct. 6.
Once again, the driver of the demo truck pairs up with the city workers and appears to hand them money. A woman looks to have cash in her hand which she stuffs in her pocket.
While in the act, we tried to ask a few questions.
"I'm Jeff Cole from FOX TV. What's happening today, guys? This is private trash. … Sir, is this a private trash company that you guys are packing up for?"
Cole approaches the driver's side of the trash truck and asks, "My friend, can I ask you: Did this guy just pay you? Because it looked to me like he might have paid you."
He knocks on the driver's window, but he's got his head down on the steering wheel: "My friend, let me talk to you real quickly. It looked to me like he may have given you some money. Is this a private contractor loading up for city trash work?"
As Cole returns to the passenger side, and the truck readies to roll away, he asks, "Buddy, where you going here? Come on, now, is this private work, sir? What's going on here?"
The city workers, hiding their faces, drove off. So, we turned to the contractor, who refused to tell us his name.
Cole: "Sir, that's is a city trash truck.
Contractor: "I know."
Cole: "You're a private contractor."
Contractor: "But, you know, these guys are just trying to feed their families."
Cole: "I know, but they feed their families with taxpayer dollars. This stuff can't go into a public landfill."
Contractor: "Well, I don't know anything about it. They just said they'll take it, so I gave it to them."
Cole: "But you paid them."
Contractor: "No, I didn't pay them."
Cole: "Sure you did."
Contractor: "Did you see me pay them?"
Cole: "I did, sir."
Contractor: "No you didn't."
Contractor: "I don't know what they are doing with it."
Cole: "Then why would you ever meet them? You must know something?"
Contractor: "What am I supposed to know?"
Cole: "Well, there's a right way to do this stuff, and there's a wrong way. This would appear to be the wrong way."
Cole: "You might be doing something wrong here. That's the problem. … Sir, I've seen you do it twice here. We've seen you here before."
Contractor: "They didn't – nobody ever told me I was doing anything wrong."
Cole: "But it looks to me like you give them money."
Contractor: "I don't give them no money."
Cole: "Well, it does, sir, it looks like on tape that you do."
With that, the truck's door closes and it drives off.
Councilman Johnson could hardly believe what he was seeing.
"Is this a firing offense for those workers, do you think?" Cole asked.
Johnson replied, "Of course, of course, because obviously, besides you're not actually out there doing your jobs, you're engaging in some level of illegal activity."
The Mayor's Office declined our request to have the Streets Commissioner watch our video and comment.
So, we waited for Mayor Jim Kenney to finish a tour of a city school with video-player in hand.
Cole: "We think we've seen money change hands here."
Kenney: "Well, that, again, this is the first I'm seeing this. We're certainly going to look at it closely, and the appropriate discipline will be put in place."
Cole: "Disappointed in this kind of stuff?"
Mayor: "Yeah, I'm disappointed when anybody does this kind of stuff."
There's been fast reaction to our reporting. A spokesperson for the city says the Streets Department has identified three workers involved in these incidents, and one no longer works for the city.
We're told the investigation continues.
The Mayor's Office writes that it appreciates FOX 29 bringing this matter to its attention but reminded us that, "The vast majority of our Sanitation Division are honest, hardworking employees."