JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri auditor said Thursday that she’s turning over records to authorities after her office found evidence of conflicts of interests between state agencies and a trucking technology company.
The State Highway Patrol and Missouri Department of Transportation are under scrutiny because officials at the agencies had served on the board of a company that for years received the only state contract to provide technology allowing truckers to bypass Missouri weigh stations.
Democratic Auditor Nicole Galloway said findings in the audit show state officials gave preferential treatment to the nonprofit HELP Inc. over its competitor, Drivewyze. She said the office found potential violations of state conflict-of-interest and financial-reporting laws and turned over documents to the FBI and Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, whose office is investigating.
“What we have here really is a breach of public trust and a clear conflict of interest,” Galloway said.
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In responses included in the audit, the agencies said they withdrew members from HELP Inc.’s board, changed the process used for picking contractors and partnered with Drivewyze. The Transportation Department also later found an employee’s related actions warranted discipline and updated internal conflict-of-interest policies.
Missouri contracted with HELP Inc. starting in 2002, when it was the only company that could provide the weigh-station technology.
Friction started when Drivewyze contracted with the state in 2014 for a pilot program to provide similar services. Emails included in the audit show HELP Inc. and top state officials at both the Highway Patrol and Transportation Department coordinated to promote HELP Inc. as Drivewyze tried to compete for state work.
In one email, HELP Inc. CEO Karen Rasmussen forwarded talking points touting the company to then-Maj. Bret Johnson of the Highway Patrol in November 2013. Johnson, who later became colonel, responded that “this issue is not going anywhere if I can help it.” Rasmussen the next day sent Johnson an email with information to use against Drivewyze.
The Highway Patrol canceled the pilot program with Drivewyze in August 2016, primarily citing concerns that the company did not provide weighing data. But the initial agreement between the state and Drivewyze did not allow it to install the equipment needed to gather that data.
The agency backtracked shortly after that, reopening the contract process and later awarding contracts to both companies in April 2017.
Other concerns cited in the audit include work by state officials to promote HELP Inc. to Texas, Kansas and Minnesota and discourage peer agencies from working with Drivewyze and other competitors, failure to publicly report membership on the nonprofit’s board and expenses paid by the company, and a revolving door of state officials who later went to work for HELP Inc. and then continued to work with former co-workers in Missouri government.
Missouri law bans former state staffers from working to influence the agency they worked at for a year after they leave.