The scrap-iron business, a rough trade, may have seemed like a good match for veteran political backroom dealer Tony Ribaudo, the longtime state representative and unsuccessful mayoral candidate. But it didn't work out.
After just a year in business at a scrapyard off Hall Street, near the Mississippi River, Ribaudo's venture in the buying and selling of leftover metals has gone belly-up, leaving the former power broker from the Hill owing the city $28,231.90 for scrap metal he bought and citations from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for dumping construction debris without a permit.
Ribaudo is also being sued by Marvin Andrew, the owner of A-1 Iron and Metal, 635 E. Clarence Ave., who had leased the business to Ribaudo in March 1998. Andrew accuses Ribaudo of breaching their contract and defacing the business by illegally dumping tons of rubble at the scrapyard.
Ribaudo is playing down the deal, saying he was "just an investor" in the business, a claim disputed by Andrew and co-workers in the scrap business during the time Ribaudo was involved. The most recent DNR notice of violation, dated June 9, was sent both to Andrew who owned the land where Ribaudo leased the business and directly to Ribaudo at his new business, STL Transfer, 3225 Chouteau Ave.
"It's a junkyard. Ever been down there? It's a recycling yard," Ribaudo says by way of explanation for the dumping of construction debris. "You find that these units come in, half with iron, half with wood, half with everything.... They've been dumping down there since 1946, so it's nothing unusual, OK?"
Andrew, a 64-year-old lifer in the scrap-iron trade, doesn't see it that way. Most of the debris had nothing to do with metal salvage; it's clear that much of the refuse is concrete, wood, plastic and miscellaneous remnants of construction and demolition. A DNR spokesperson confirms that no history of similar citations existed at that address before Ribaudo leased the business. The way Andrew sees it, when the bottom dropped out of the scrap market, Ribaudo knew his business was headed for the ditch and wanted a way to get some cash.
"He knew he wasn't going to ship it back out or clean it up," Andrew says. "He made money on it coming in because he was letting the people come in and dump cheap instead of going to the regular landfill. But he was dumping 25 loads a week. To ship it back out, the cost would be triple what he was letting 'em dump it for. But that wasn't on his mind his mind was on getting some money in his pocket, because he was going down."
Since Ribaudo was evicted from the property in early June, Andrew has received estimates ranging from $40,000-$100,00 to clean up the debris Ribaudo left behind.
One of Ribaudo's last acts when the scrap venture came to a bad end was remedied recently when police visited him to inquire about some of the things he took from A-1 Iron and Metal when he was evicted. Andrew says Ribaudo was told by the bank to "take everything that wasn't bolted down" in order to help repay the loan but that Ribaudo's hirelings got a bit carried away with what they carried away. Scale registers were unscrewed from the wall; metal platforms from the scales were removed; a small refrigerator was taken, as was a paper-towel dispenser. Even a stash of toilet paper disappeared.
"He was told by the bank to take everything that wasn't bolted down," says Andrew. "But who's going to take the refrigerator? Who's going to take the paper-towel dispenser off the wall? Who's going to take all the rolls of toilet paper out of the bathroom?"
"My brother Jerry just bought it from Sam's," says Andrew of the toilet paper. "He was raising hell. He spent almost 30 bucks on toilet paper."
After a visit from the police, Ribaudo returned most of the goods, including the scale platforms, a desk, a soda machine and the refrigerator. Again, Ribaudo doesn't see what all the fuss is about.
"There were certain items that were pledged to the bank as part of the loan," says Ribaudo. "Once it was cleared with the bank, they got the items back I mean small stuff, like desks, OK? No big deal, OK?"
What remains a big deal is the refuse left on the 4.5-acre site of A-1 Iron and Metal, the business owned by Andrew and his two older brothers since 1951. They had leased it to Ribaudo with an option to buy, with the idea of getting out of the business. They are still trying to sell the land and the business, but the dumped trash proved an obstacle during negotiations with a potential buyer who wanted to use the property to stack freight containers.
Walking around his scrapyard, Andrew recalls the terms of the deal with Ribaudo: "We leased the business to him to operate a scrap-iron and recycling business. And unless I'm drunk, this is not scrap iron or recycling," Andrew says, gesturing at the rubble. "He actually defaced the recycling business. I had other people in here looking at this. I had a commercial Realtor come in here, and he laughed at me. He said, "You get this cleaned up, and I can sell this place for you in no time.'"
"A no-lose situation"
Andrew DiGiuseppi says the scrap business is "not for the weak of heart," comparing it to commodity trading. DiGiuseppi has been in the business for 20 years and first approached Ribaudo about leasing the Andrew brothers' business with an option to buy. At the time, the deal had potential.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do this kind of business," says DiGiuseppi. "It's the ultimate in recycling. We take a lot of stuff that would normally go into a landfill, like junk automobiles and appliances, and we recycle that stuff. It goes back to the steel mills, (then is) melted down and made into new products.
"It's been a good business for a lot of years, but the cycle turned down," says DiGiuseppi, who parted ways with Ribaudo in November and now works in the scrap-iron business on the East Side. He blames scrap dumping by Russia, Japan and Brazil for the plummeting price of scrap. Andrew, who was retained by Ribaudo as a consultant to the business, recalls that when the scrap market bottomed out last summer, Laclede Steel was buying foreign scrap by the bargeload for up to $50 a ton less than the price of domestic scrap.
With that type of competition and few protectionist moves by the federal government, many scrap businesses went bust, according to DiGiuseppi. Had the Andrew brothers not leased the business to Ribaudo, they might have faced the same fate. As for the dumping of demolition debris, that came after DiGiuseppi was gone.
"That all happened after I left. I don't have a clue on how that occurred. That's Tony Ribaudo and his brother they had a big hand in the demolition-trash dumping. I don't know who they were involved with; I was gone three or four months before all that started happening," DiGiuseppi says. "When I took over the yard, I spent like $25,000 cleaning the place up. Then I heard he was putting trash in there, way after I left, and I said, "Boy, that's a heartbreak.' But what are you going to do?"
What Andrew is planning to do now is what he wanted to do a year ago: get out of the business and retire. His brother Dan, 82, is in ill health. Brother Jerry, who was working as a consultant to Ribaudo, is 71. A bitter and somewhat wiser Marvin Andrew sees that what he first saw as a plus about Ribaudo may not, in the end, work in his favor.
At the start, Andrew was glad Ribaudo was politically connected. "He knew everybody," Andrew recalls. "I told him we had a no-lose situation. The only factor he had against him was that he knew nothing about the business."
Ribaudo was a state representative from 1976-1994. He ran for mayor in 1993, finishing third behind victorious Freeman Bosley Jr. and aldermanic President Tom Villa. Ribaudo's 12.5 percent of the vote split the white South Side and enabled Bosley, who became the city's first African-American mayor, to win with 44 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, the election that virtually determines who will be the next mayor. Although Ribaudo entered the race before Villa, it is widely held that Ribaudo's decision to remain a candidate sealed Villa's fate.
Ribaudo no longer lives on the Hill, preferring instead a house in Town & Country with a $384,000 mortgage. His flamboyant political past includes involvement with the controversial Floyd Warmann riverfront lease in the early 1990s, as well as lawsuit-littered campaigns for his state-representative seat. Ribaudo's stock may have declined longtime opponent Tom Bauer is now the alderman from Ribaudo's old district. Although Ribaudo is on the staff of state Sen. Lacy Clay, most of the time when his name appears in the paper it's a name-dropping in a Jerry Berger column.
But Ribaudo does have a past, and now that this business has unraveled, Andrew worries that Ribaudo's political connections will help shield him from making retribution.
"For some reason, his name is so powerful he gets away with everything," says Andrew.
Much of the hangover from a business deal gone bad can be forgotten, but the rubble remains: "We didn't put it in there. He illegally put it in there and made no attempt whatsoever to get it out. But he was paid for having it put in there."
As for getting any satisfaction from his lawsuits, Marvin Andrew is not optimistic.
"I'm suing them for a certain amount of money, but I'll tell you what's going to happen: It'll get to the court and the judge will say, "What we got here? Mr. Andrew is suing for such-and-such.' His lawyer Tony won't be there is going to say, "Your honor, we're filing Chapter 11. We're a corporation, and we're defunct.' That's all. And you can wipe your nose."