By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
Pasadena Police Sergeant Loni Robinson shuffles through a stack of hair-raising photos -- a truck with a c-clamp covering an air leak, another with frame cracked to the point of collapse -- and pulls out a picture of a wheel coated with oil from a leaking brake cylinder. "This particular axle has no brakes," says Robinson.
What makes the photo stand out isn't the condition of the vehicle, which is no worse than the other horror shows in the pile. The day before Pasadena police inspected the truck and found the safety problem, the Texas Department of Public Safety had done its own inspection at a weigh station. The truck got a ticket for not having a Texas Department of Transportation registration, but DPS never saw the useless brake and let the truck drive on. Pasadena took it off the road.
Until the law changed in 1995 to allow municipalities to conduct their own inspections, DPS was the sole agency in charge of enforcing commercial vehicle safety. One might expect the state troopers to be sticklers about safety issues -- the halls of the DPS training academy in Austin are lined with pictures of officers killed in the line of duty, many run over by errant trucks.
But DPS has a strangely loose attitude about truck inspections. Unless at a weigh station, troopers rarely perform the most rigorous type of inspection, which requires crawling under the truck and poking around in the grime. Even at the stations, which only operate a couple of days a week at most, all but a relative handful of the trucks hit the scales and then move on with but a cursory glance at the rig itself -- in a June survey of two area weigh stations, officers inspected only 4 percent of the trucks that passed through. Of those, 27 percent were deemed unworthy of continuing. Compare that with Pasadena's average of almost 70 percent.
The difference is more than coincidental. "DPS has a reputation for being lax," says Robinson.
Some truck drivers agree. When the state troopers inspect one of his trucks, says owner-driver Luis Hernandez, they'll walk around the vehicle and, unless something obvious jumps out, "They won't give me a ticket."
On the other hand, says Hernandez, "Pasadena will never pull one of my trucks and check it and let me go without a ticket. They'll find something."
In fact, evidence suggests that the relationship between DPS and the trucking industry is quite cozy, even approaching bedfellow status. Captain David Kemp and other troopers frequently attend meetings of trucking industry trade associations and hobnob with top executives, though as Kemp points out, there's nothing inherently wrong with that: His division participates in industry safety programs and, as the state agency in charge of enforcing state and federal highway transportation law, DPS is the logical liaison when questions arise.
The propriety line gets a little fuzzier when looking at a roster of former DPS troopers who moved into trucking industry positions after retirement: Gilbert Ray, now the executive director of the Houston Area Transportation Safety Association, a trade group; Red Blanchette, former head hazmat [hazardous materials] trooper, an industry safety consultant; B.L. Manry, safety director for Palletized Trucking.
When industry has a problem, they can always call on DPS to help solve it. The Texas Motor Transportation Association, for example, has worked to get tickets written "in error" cleared from the books. "Right now, if DPS issues a citation in error, we can get ahold of them and discuss it with them," says TMTA information director Les Findeisen. If they realize that the ticket was improper, they can get it removed from records.
No such luck when it comes to tickets written by local police. "We don't have that ability through the municipal court system," Findeisen says.
Sometimes industry can persuade DPS to overrule state law. After the legislature passed a bill last year requiring trucking companies to put their addresses, registration numbers and other identifiers on their vehicles, Kemp issued a memorandum delaying implementation of the law for 90 days. "The motor carrier industry will face a financial impact due to this change," he wrote in a letter to law enforcement agencies. "It is our request that you honor this warning period."
Eventually, DPS decided to make the injunction against the law permanent. "Our combined efforts have been effective," crowed a release written by the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association, which had lobbied DPS to ignore the law.
If DPS walks hand in hand with industry, the same cannot be said for other law enforcement agencies. "The upper echelon over there treats us like bastard stepchildren," says Pasadena DOT officer Gary Delozier.
That TxDOT, legislators Robert Talton and Mario Gallegos, TMTA and others should use DPS as a weapon in their effort to kill the Pasadena weigh station is especially frustrating for Robinson and his DOT unit. For one thing, the Texas 225 location is out of DPS's jurisdiction. "Why would DPS even be involved in this?" Robinson wonders. "I haven't seen a DPS trooper write a ticket on 225 in 15 years.
Robinson is also angry that Kemp was less than straightforward with him about his role, and that the captain's stories to various people about the project have contradictions, raising suspicions about the truth. Given Kemp's ties, Robinson believes he should not have gotten involved in the first place. "I think that what he's done with my city is a conflict of interest," Robinson says. "He's feathering his bed for when he retires."
-- Bob Burtman
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