A Kinsley man said a post on the Pawnee County Sheriff’s Office Facebook last spring has unfairly and inaccurately characterized him and role in his grandfather’s septic cleaning business. Kelly Steele said his 88-year-old grandfather owns the business, but it was Kelly’s photo that was posted online on May 15.
The Pawnee County Sheriff’s Office said Friday it will remove the post but was not apologetic, since it intended to alert the public to a possible scam.
The Great Bend Tribune also ran a story based on the Facebook post, including Kelly Steele’s photo, the following day under the headline, “Pawnee County Sheriff warns public of unethical septic company.”
The Facebook post, which was still online Friday morning, read:
“The Pawnee County Sheriff’s Office has received several complaints regarding a septic tank pumping and servicing business. This organization is called ‘Septic Tanks Pumped & Serviced’ and is operated by Kelly Steele. ...”
Kelly said his grandfather, Don Steel Sr., is the owner of the company and a truck described in the post. Kelly helps him by digging out tanks two or three times a week.
“...Steele will advertise he can clean out your tank at $1.15 to $1.50 a gallon and he will provide you a discount if he can dump the waste on your land, which is illegal. Steele has been given notification by the Attorney General’s Office previously to cease operations for prohibited business practices,” the post continued. Steele said the practice is not illegal if properly done and there was no order from the Attorney General’s Office.”
The Tribune contacted the Kansas Attorney General’s office. Public Information Officer Jennifer Montgomery responded, “Our office did not send a cease and desist letter in the case that you reference.”
The post concludes by advising, “... It is best practice to review business’ accreditation on the Better Business Bureau website at www.bbb.org.
“If you see this vehicle, please call the Pawnee County Sheriff’s Office at 620-285-2211 or call 911.”
The Tribune was unable to find any mention of the business on the Better Business Bureau website.
Kelly Steele’s father, Don Steele Jr., is not connected to the business but also objected to the reports. He contacted the Tribune and Pawnee County Attorney Douglas McNett.
“Everything is completely untrue,” Don Jr. said.
Father and son both said that Don Sr. has owned the business for many years and that the methods he practices are legal.
“None of it’s true,” Kelly said. “Basically, none of the information they gave was correct at all. Granddad is licensed in Hays; we’ve got paperwork to show it’s legal to do what we’re doing.”
They said the reports have hurt Don Sr.’s business.
Kelly Steele also said officials at the Pawnee County Sheriff’s Office have refused to talk to him.
Don Jr. suggested the Tribune contact Robert Mitchell in La Crosse, who is listed by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment as the Local Environmental Protection Program’s county sanitarian specialist in Rush County, to verify that the company’s practices are legal. However, when Mitchell returned a telephone call on Friday, he initially said, “I have been advised not to comment on this.”
McNett responded to the Tribune via email:
“... Donald Steele Jr. stopped by my office July 12th asking what he could do to resolve the situation. I informed him I was never a party to the Sheriff’s Department’s Facebook post and as such did not have any information for him. I also told him that frankly I know nothing about the rules and regulations of handling raw sewage. I later learned Undersheriff Derek Slack is who had investigated the matter initially. It is my understanding that the Pawnee County Sheriff first became involved when they received calls from a couple of concerned citizens about a suspicious character going from rural residence to rural residence offering to pump out their septic systems. The sheriff’s department later identified that person to be Kelly Steele. I do not know where the Sheriff obtained its information alleging the Attorney General had previously been involved. In hindsight I do not believe that is accurate. ...
“To date my office has not been requested by law enforcement to pursue this matter,” McNett said.
PCSO stands by story
Pawnee County Sheriff Scott King said the story on Facebook was not intended as a news release but was posted because his office had received two complaints and wanted to warn citizens of a possible scam.
“It was posted to warn citizens,” he said. However, there have been no arrests.
Undersheriff Dereke Slack said after two different people contacted him about being approached by the Steeles, he reached out to Edwards County Undersheriff Robert Blackwell who confirmed they operate their business in that county. According to Slack, he was also told the Edwards County Sheriff’s Department had issued a cease and desist type order from the Attorney General’s office sometime in the past couple of years. The Tribune reached out to Blackwell on Friday afternoon to confirm this, but Blackwell was gone for the day.
One of the people who called the sheriff received a business card from Steele, and passed it on to Slack. Slack had a photo of him on file, from which two people identified him.
Slack said he posted on Facebook to warn the public of a potential scam on May 15. He also hoped to make contact with the Steeles. One of the Steeles called, but refused to meet with Slack in person. Later, Slack said, Blackwell called to ask if there was a warrant for steel. There was not.
“I didn’t even pull a case on it,” Slack said. “I felt it was immaterial.”
Later, after the Tribune picked up the post and published it, Slack was contacted by Robert Mitchell with the Central Kansas Local Environmental Protection Group. A septic operator in Great Bend had contacted him with concerns. Mitchell explained to Slack that “land casting,” which the Steele’s were advertising they could do for a discounted price, was legal.
“If they add the proper amount of bleach and lye to the septic waste, they can spray in on privately owned land with the permission of the landowner,” Slack said he was told. This is also what Kelly and Don Steele Jr. have maintained.
The Tribune called Mitchell again Friday afternoon. He cautioned that he was unable to comment broadly on the topic of the Steeles but did add some information.
CKLEPG licenses septic removal companies and their trucks, he said.
“Don Steele’s company and his vehicle are licensed to perform a septic clean-out in Pawnee County,” Mitchell said. But, he’s not supposed to be land casting anymore. “He needs to take and dispose of it at a city sewer.” Or a lagoon, if that is what the city allows, he added.
Both Slack and Pawnee county Sheriff Scot King were unapologetic about the post, and do not feel any part of it needs to be corrected. However, as of this week, the post has been removed from the Pawnee County Sheriff’s Facebook page, King said.
“We thought it was a done deal,” Slack said.
Slack and King were surprised when the Tribune contacted them recently to inquire about the post.
“It did what it was intended to do,” Slack said. “It brought awareness and people reached out to make contact.”
But, he added, “It wasn’t clarified as well as it should have been, and I’ll admit that.”