Feds fight unsafe ‘chameleon’ trucking companies

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Federal authorities are doing more to weed out trucking carriers that operate multiple companies and show a pattern of disregard for safety rules. But Target 8 investigators learned that in order to revoke the license of a so-called “chameleon” carrier, federal inspectors have to prove the carrier had malicious motive.

Eric Bordeaux called Target 8 because he needed help getting his final paycheck from a former employer. He ultimately got his money, but something else about his story caught Target 8 investigators’ attention.

“One time I drove 5,000 miles in a week, which isn’t even close to legal,” Bordeaux recalled as he described working for a Lansing-based trucking company.

“I had driven 20-plus hours and as I was coming up (the driveway) the trailer bottomed out,” he continued, recounting one particularly harrowing trip.

When Target 8 asked him to clarify if those 20 hours were nonstop, Bordeaux replied, “Yes, I’ve done that plenty of times.”

That’s well beyond the limit prescribed by federal regulations.

The 42-year-old trucker from Muskegon said he drank lots of coffee to stay awake and pulled over for a nap if he felt he was “getting too tired.” Still, he acknowledged the situation was not safe.

When Target 8 paid a visit to the company for which Bordeaux drove, Specialized Solutions, LLC in Lansing, its owner called the carrier’s safety record “outstanding.”

“I’d say (it’s) perfect,” said Anvar Akhmedov, a 28-year-old from Okemos.

Not so, according to U.S. Department of Transportation records Target 8 obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

COMPLAINT AGAINST CARRIER: ‘EGREGIOUS’ FALSE RECORDS

A June 2017 investigation into allegations of “egregious” false records violations resulted in a proposed “unsatisfactory” safety rating for Specialized Solutions.

Among the specific citations:

  • 21 violations for making or permitting a driver to make a false report regarding duty status (false log books).
  • One violation for using a driver before receiving negative drug test results.
  • One violation for failing to implement a random drug and/or alcohol testing program.
  • One violation for failing to keep minimum records of inspection and vehicle maintenance.

“That stuff happens all the time,” Akhmedov said in response to Target 8’s question about the violations for false reports.

He blamed drivers for changing their log books when they exceed maximum hours behind the wheel, saying he disciplines and even fires employees for that behavior.

“Given how many miles our entire fleet drives and how many violations they receive, for me, I don’t count them as significant,” Akhmedov said.

According to the DOT’s online database, Specialized Solutions has 37 “power units,” 21 drivers and covered 3.8 million miles in 2016.

Other violations included multiple citations for unsafe driving and vehicle maintenance, including “inoperative/defective brakes,” improper load securement and flat or underinflated tires.

“I understand we get violations and that makes us look bad,” Akhmedov said. “But I don’t think we are not a safe company. Not for a second. … We as a company, we’re trying to do as much as we can to be safe, to be compliant.”

Specialized Solutions currently has a “conditional” safety rating with the Department of Transportation, which means, according to the agency’s definition, that the carrier “does not have adequate safety management controls in place to ensure compliance” with regulations.

Online records show Specialized Solutions has a 34.1 percent vehicle “out of service” rate compared to the national average of 20.7 percent. The out of service rate for the company’s drivers is 9.7 percent compared to 5.5 percent for drivers nationwide.

According to federal records, Akhmedov has a “history of non-compliance” that goes beyond Specialized Solutions. Inspectors linked him to at least four other trucking companies, including Azda Logistics.

“Azda Logistics LLC with Anvar Akhmedov as the owner, manager or company representative appears to be a reincarnated carrier from at least four other motor carriers, three of which have been put out of service,” an agent wrote in a 2016 compliance review.

FEDS FOCUS ON WEEDING OUT ‘CHAMELEON’ CARRIERS

Identifying reincarnated or “chameleon” carriers has been a focus for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration since a 2012 report (PDF) from the Government Accountability Office.

The report found evidence that a growing number of interstate trucking companies were obtaining new DOT numbers in efforts to disguise their former identity and evade enforcement actions.

Using Federal Motor Carrier data, accountability office researchers discovered an increased number of freight carrier applicants with chameleon attributes. The number was 724 in 2005 and 1,082 in 2010.

To put those numbers into context, there were a total of 49,232 new applicants for operating authority in 2005 and 65,631 new applicants in 2010. That means about 1.5 percent of carrier applicants had chameleon traits in 2005 compared to about 1.7 percent in 2010.

It’s important to note that while reincarnated carriers pose a safety risk, they represent a small minority in a trucking industry that by and large works hard to keep our roads safe.

The GAO report also found that 18 percent of the reincarnated carriers were involved in severe crashes, compared with 6 percent of new applicants without chameleon attributes.

Online FMSCA records show Specialized Solutions has had four accidents since 2016, two of which resulted in injuries. It’s not clear from the records whether Specialized Solutions drivers were at fault.

In the 2016 compliance review of Azda Logistics, a motor carrier officer predicted that the company would shut down and reopen under new name.

“Azda Logistics will most likely reincarnate itself as Specialized Solutions LLC to avoid an adverse safety rating or history,” the agent wrote.

‘NO EVIDENCE’ CARRIER REINCARNATED TO EVADE REGULATIONS

But officials at the FMSCA, responding to Target 8’s questions this week, said they ultimately found “no evidence” to support a charge that Akhmedov reincarnated carriers specifically for the purpose of evading regulations.

FMCSA officials noted Akhmedov’s prior carriers had paid their associated penalties and had “no unsafe current histories” associated with the identified carriers.

An official told Target 8 that in order to revoke a carrier’s operating authority, there must be evidence that the “new or affiliated carrier’s creation was for the purpose of evading FMCSA statutory or regulatory requirements, an order, enforcement action, or negative compliance history.”

Akhmedov himself told Target 8 that he had switched company names in the past to hide his troubled safety record from potential customers, but not from government regulators.

At the time, carriers’ safety scores were posted online, which Akhmedov said made his small company’s record look worse than it was.

“After a while we figured out, ‘Hey, if we open a new company, they’re not going to know, they’re not going to see that information.’ DOT’s going to see it, but they can see it all day long,” Akhmedov said.

In a follow up to an initial list of question to FMCSA, Target 8 asked if it’s OK for carriers to try to hide their records from potential customers, but the agency did not respond.

REPORT: OWNER ADMITTED TO ‘LYING ABOUT HIS IDENTITY’

Target 8 discovered Akhmedov did not list his other companies when he filed paperwork to open Specialized Solutions in 2014. When the federal form asked if he was affiliated with other FMCSA-licensed carriers, he checked the box that said “no.”

At the time, Akhmedov and his family were connected to several other carriers. The same report that predicted Akhmedov would reincarnate as Specialized Solutions also noted that the business owner was using his brother’s identity to conduct official business with FMCSA.

“Mr. Akhmedov admitted to lying about his identity and explained he thought if we knew who he really was that he would not pass the audit because of his prior history with FMCSA,” wrote the investigator. “Mr. Akhmedov also informed me that he felt lying about his identity was ‘no big deal.'”

FMCSA, in its response to Target 8’s inquiry, pointed out that its proposed unsatisfactory rating following Akhmedov’s June 2017 inspection was “intended to induce a motor carrier’s initiation of corrective action.”

“In this case, Specialized Solutions, LLC quickly submitted extensive evidence of the corrective actions taken in addressing the safety violations,” Sharon Worthy, director of external affairs for FMCSA, wrote. “As a result, the carrier’s safety rating upgrade petition was approved and a final safety rating of Conditional issued.”

FMCSA initially fined Specialized Solutions $29,690 for violations identified during last summer’s review, but later cut that penalty in half as part of a settlement agreement. As a condition of that agreement, FMCSA will monitor Specialized Solutions for a two-year period.

“FMCSA is confident that if this same carrier attempted to apply for operating authority as a new carrier, the vetting technology would detect the relationships and flag the application for investigation,” Worthy wrote.

NEW PROGRAM FLAGS CHAMELEON CARRIERS FOR REVIEW

In 2016, FMCSA put in place a new program that electronically screens applications for operating authority for signs of chameleon characteristics.

Of the 89,819 applications screened since launch, 8,000 were flagged for further vetting. Worthy said “many” of the applications identified for investigation were ultimately rejected.

The problem of chameleon carriers first came to light after a horrific 2008 bus crash in Sherman, Texas, that killed 17 people. The passenger bus was a reincarnated carrier that had been shut down previously for safety violations.

Following that accident, FMCSA began vetting carriers of passengers and household goods for chameleon traits.

In 2014,  FMCSA, at the direction of Congress, instituted a new rule (PDF) allowing the agency to suspend or revoke the operating authority of carriers shown to “operate multiple entities under common control to conceal noncompliance with safety regulations.”

In 2016, they expanded the vetting program to include freight carriers.

FMCSA officials urge anyone with knowledge and evidence of a motor carrier that has reincarnated for the purpose of evading regulatory requirements, an order, enforcement action, or negative compliance history to contact the FMCSA Division Office where the carrier maintains its principle place of business. To file a complaint against a carrier, you can also go to FMCSA’s National Consumer Complaint Database or call 1-888-368-7238.

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