There are endless rumors every year of FBI investigations and inquiries as the legislative session progresses and lawmakers’ bills begin to die. This year, not only were the rumors true, but FBI agents reportedly showed up to a House committee hearing.
There is always drama at the end of a legislative session, add in the FBI, and it’s easy to lose sight of the facts for the drama. Here is the back story, the conflict, and the legislative fight behind the drama.
The back story
The story begins over two decades ago. HELP was formed in 1993 as a 501(c)3 nonprofit based out of Phoenix, Arizona, installing sensors in highways that allow truckers who normally have to stop at weigh stations to pass over the sensors and continue on the road.
However, all trucks who use a weigh-in-motion bypass service must have all of their taxes paid which, over time, becomes a great benefit to the state. HELP also shares the data they gather from the sensors with the state.
In 1999, Missouri passed a law allowing for trucks to utilize a weigh-in-motion service for weigh stations, and, in 2002 the state approached HELP about serving Missouri trucks. Because one of the biggest costs in the trucking industry revolves around hours on the road, HELP’s bypass program became extremely popular in the industry, so much so that states all around the country have joined the board administering the program. In a unique move, HELP then put up the initial investment to install the sensors.
In 2008, Missouri began paying dues to HELP and put state officials on the board of directors. Currently, there are officials in 22 states on the HELP board of directors and all are prominently listed on their website. In Missouri, Tom Crawford with the Missouri Trucking Association, Captain David Earney with the Missouri Highway Patrol, and Scott Marion with the Missouri Department of Transportation all sit on the board.
The desire for trucking companies to utilize a service to navigate around the weigh stations led to competitors joining the market. In Missouri, Drivewyze was the first competitor that attempted to enter the market. The conflict originated from 2002 when the state asked HELP to pay for the sensors instead of the state owning them as happens in several other states.
Drivewyze is a for-profit company based in Canada that is operating in nearly 40 states and touts a high-tech service for over-the-road truckers. While, as a private company, they do not have individual state employees on their board of directors, they do list as “partners” the trucking associations and department of transportations for multiple states.
In Missouri, Drivewyze lists the Missouri Highway Patrol as their law enforcement partner and the Missouri Trucking Association as a state trucking association member.
Installing new sensors
Drivewyze began attempting to enter the market in Missouri in August of 2014 and operated for two years with an agreement operating eight sites. However, the Department of Transportation states that they did not have sensors capable of collecting the data required by law, and the pilot program was ended.
Drivewyze claims that HELP was scheduled to replace their existing sensors in 2018 which will require cutting into the major highways of the state and, in some cases, shutting down lanes of traffic, like Interstate 70, to complete the installations.
However, HELP says that they only plan to perform routine maintenance, updating sensors as needed. Drivewyze claims that they attempted to share the cost of the installation of the new sensors that do collect the statutory required data and share in the maintenance as well.
In none of the other 33 states that HELP services do they share the cost of installation of sensors with another entity. In other states, however, other entities do compete with HELP, installing their own technology and maintaining their own data arrangements with the respective states where the state does not install and maintain the sensors.
HELP estimates their investment in the sensors amounts to about $20 million over the 15 years and claims to have saved thousands of hours and millions of dollars to the trucking industry while incentivizing trucks to maintain an up-to-date tax schedule.
Drivewyze states that they reached out to HELP and offered to split the costs of updating all the sensors. HELP denies that they were planning to update all the sensors in 2018.
In a letter to Sen. Dave Schatz from David Lorenzen, the chief of Iowa Motor Vehicle Enforcement, as well as the Chairman of the board of directors of HELP, he stated that Drivewyze never approached HELP with a formal proposal. They also said they do not share any data with Drivewyze, have not in the past, and do not plan to in the future.
Lorenzen wrapped up his letter to Schatz by claiming that because HELP is a 501(c)3 non-profit charity, they cannot share assets with Drivewyze, a for-profit company. Missouri isn’t the only state where HELP and Drivewyze are in conflict.
After an unsuccessful overture to HELP for a cooperative arrangement to share costs and data, and the end of their pilot program Drivewyze says that they applied for a permit from MoDOT to install their own sensors to free them of having to work with HELP at all.
Drivewyze claims that they were told that after purchasing the sensors and being ready to install them, they were told by MoDOT that their permit to begin installation would not be approved because of a lack of trust and Drivewyze claims that they were not given any advice as to how to regain that trust. At that point, they chose to attempt a legislative remedy.
The legislative fight
On Dec. 21, Rep. T.J. Berry pre-filed HB 306, which would force HELP to share the sensors with Drivewyze or other competitors in a cost share arrangement. It was first read on the first day of session and second read the next day. House Speaker Todd Richardson then quickly referred Berry’s bill to Berry’s own committee the very next week, virtually as fast as a bill can be moved in the House of Representatives.
The bill sat in Chairman Berry’s committee over a month before coming out, and the Speaker waited approximately the same amount of time before placing it on the House calendar. Since then, it has been moving through the legislative process.
On April 6, St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial writer Tony Messenger reported Berry had told him the FBI had visited his office about the bill. Berry said to Messenger that “There is no doubt in my mind that there is a conflict of interest.”
The conflict of interest would conceivably be due to the two state employees on the HELP board. However, the non-profit board is unpaid, and Missouri has been represented by state employees since 2008 on what they describe as a public-private partnership.
However, HELP claims to be in total compliance with IRS conflict of interest policies set forth by federal 501(c)3 rules. Each board member must also sign IRS conflict of interest forms.
The HELP board is unpaid and meets twice a year, and has since 2014, meeting in locations such as Phoenix, San Antonio, and Richmond. Board members’ trips to these meetings are paid for, which Drivewyze representatives claim influence board members to use their official offices to keep Drivewyze from operating in the state.
This was met with a staunch response from one of the Highway Patrol’s most staunch defenders in the General Assembly, Sen. Doug Libla.
“This is just sour grapes because they lost their contract with MoDOT for not fulfilling their obligations,” Libla said. “I am not going to sit idly by and allow their CEO to come into town and try to get attention by impugning the reputation and integrity of the many fine folks of the Highway Patrol or MoDOT.”
Libla likened Drivewyze’s demands to a toll bridge. He analogized that in this public-private partnership, HELP had constructed the system and now Drivewyze was wanting to reap the benefits without putting up the investment.
“Their argument in committee reminded me of the toll bridge at Lake of the Ozarks. Geez – can I set up a toll booth too – please!” Libla said.
On April 10, MoDOT announced that both HELP and Drivewyze would be awarded contracts to provide weigh station truck bypass services for Missouri, with one of the requirements that both vendors comply with the Missouri truck safety law. Regardless, the bill has continued moving through the House.
The debate over whether state employees should serve on nonprofit boards will continue and the last chapter of the HELP-Drivewyze saga is likely to continue, but it seems unlikely to continue without some drama and hyperbole in the last four weeks of session as it has the first four months.