Swift was third-party tester in CDL debacle

| 2/13/2009

After months of questions and two Freedom of Information requests the Tennessee Department of Safety finally coughed up the name of a third party CDL tester whose practices have put thousands of CDLs in jeopardy.

The state of Tennessee finally responded to Land Line Magazine’s freedom of information requests on Friday and confirmed that Swift Transportation Corp. Inc was the third-party tester embroiled in a yearlong commercial driver’s license debacle.

The CDL problem – which has produced no criminal or civil charges – has resulted in an estimated 5,000 CDLs being yanked from drivers.

In February 2008, the state-certified CDL testing center at a Swift Trucking facility near Memphis was raided by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, the U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general; Secret Service; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; U.S. marshals; Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration; and Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Tennessee Department of Safety.

Documents were seized, and the investigation reportedly centered on the illegal issuance of CDLs.

Although no charges emerged, in January Tennessee announced that drivers who obtained a commercial driver’s license through an unnamed third-party tester in Tennessee between May 2005 and January 2008 may be required to do a complete retest, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety.

Tennessee has mailed letters to the approximately 1,300 CDL-holders in that state who obtained CDLs from the Swift-run CDL testing facility near Memphis between May 2005 and January 2008, said Laura McPherson, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Safety.

The department has a breakdown of affected drivers by state, McPherson said, which total approximately 5,000 nationally who were issued CDLs from the third-party tester during that 32-month span.

“They will be notified by mail through our department if they are in Tennessee,” McPherson told Land Line. “The states they live in have all been notified – the states, it’s their prerogative.”

The Department of Safety was not threatened with a lawsuit, the spokesman said, though for weeks the department would not release the company name of the third-party tester “for legal reasons,” McPherson said.

Land Line submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the state requesting the third party tester’s name in an effort to inform thousands of over-the-road drivers who may be affected by the CDL issue but may not know their license had been revoked.

Many long-haul truckers work for months at a time before coming home, and may unknowingly have an invalid CDL. Told that states such as New York required retesting done within 10 days, and that Virginia has required retesting by Feb. 6, Tennessee state officials said those issues are between the drivers and their home states.

Tony Multari remembers how odd it was to see the Tennessee Department of Safety office manned by Swift employees, who wore Swift gear on Swift property attached to the carrier’s driving school and terminal near Memphis, TN.

Told they were practicing straight-line backing, parallel parking and other skills maneuvers, Multari said he soon found out that he’d passed the test.

“They told us the people who give you the road test are going to be their actual Swift employees, but they said you’re not going to have the road test given by the same teachers who taught you,” Multari told Land Line. “When we were practicing our maneuvers, it turns out we were actually being scored for the road test.”

Multari – who now works for a feed mill in New York – later started his own thread on an online message board about the Swift CDL scandal. Much of the discussion centered on the pointing of fingers between Tennessee and Swift, and the drivers caught in the middle.

After quitting a good-paying job as a meat cutter, Multari entered Swift’s driver training program. The program – which he said lasted about 23 days – concluded with drivers being sent home to wait on their CDL. “That completed the 30-day residency requirement for Tennessee,” Multari said.

After obtaining the CDL, Multari said he waited five weeks for a load before giving up on Swift and finding a different job. The mega-carrier’s $3,900 charge for driving school tuition remains on his credit report, however.

“We had no choice – it’s not like we could choose to use an outside testing agency,” Multari told Land Line. “We had to do it their way; we weren’t given an option. To a certain degree, Swift needs to be held accountable. It was their procedure ultimately that was called into question.”

On Friday, Swift’s media relations official did not immediately return phone calls or an e-mail message seeking comment on the company’s testing facility officially being named by the state.

Previously, Swift Transportation, for its part, has acknowledged the raid, and the subsequent shutdown of the testing facility run in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Safety, although a driving school in the Memphis facility is still in operation.

Dave Berry, Swift spokesman, told Land Line this past month Swift was trying to find out more specifics about the Tennessee CDL issue and called the situation “peculiar.”

“We don’t know if they’re referring to us or not; we’d like to help the state,” Berry told Land Line in January.  He said if it’s confirmed that those who lost their CDLs after obtaining them at the Swift facility in Tennessee, the company can “help them get retested, get notified or do what’s proper.”

Berry pointed out that no law enforcement agency has charged anyone associated with the testing facility or Swift with wrongdoing.

As the company understands it, Swift believes problems related to the testing facility were on the skills test portion, not the written test.

“We’re cooperating fully, 100 percent. Like the state, our interest is safety,” Berry said then. “Our drivers, the state, everybody’s number one concern is safety. This is about the skills test. They don’t need to take the written exam, or do these other things. As near as we can tell – my advice to the driver would be – first of all – I’m sorry that something like this is happening. I would advise them to follow the instructions they had from the state.”

OOIDA’s Member Assistance Department has spoken with drivers who obtained their CDL in Tennessee during the period in question but who can’t retest because they don’t own a truck and are out of work, preventing them from taking a skills test.

Whether a driver has to retake all of a CDL test may depend on which state they live in.

Chris Bretz, an OOIDA Member from Farmington, MO, has been given until March 29 before his CDL “will be cancelled.”

Bretz, who is currently out of work, has no access to a truck. Bretz attended Swift’s driving school in May 2005 as a 21-year-old. He also remembered Swift employees working the third-party testing area adjacent to the terminal.

“They said they were from the Department of Transportation for Tennessee, but they had Swift shirts on. I thought it was odd,” Bretz told Land Line.

Bretz said he was told by Swift after the 2008 raid that he wouldn’t be affected by the testing facility shutdown.

Nothing about the testing seemed illegitimate to Bretz.

“Everything seemed pretty straight up; it wasn’t like they were giving you answers to the test or anything.”

Daniel Nicholas doesn’t share Bretz’s opinion.

The currently out-of-work driver from Oakton, VA, recently received a letter from his home state saying he had to redo the skills portion of his CDL test or forfeit his license.

Nicholas said he attended Swift’s driver training school in November 2005, before obtaining his CDL that same month. The driver and sometime construction worker said he’s upset that no one will tell him why his CDL test must be retaken, and said he doesn’t own or have use of a truck to retake the skills portion of the test.

“The Tennessee Department of Safety won’t respond to e-mail, and when I call, I get the runaround,” Nicholas told Land Line. “They won’t release information.”

For more information, go to www.tennessee.gov/safety, call the Tennessee Department of Safety driver services department at (615) 253-5221, or call your home state licensing agency.

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer

Land Line Staff Writer Bill Hudgins contributed to this report.