Fuel Smarts

Appeals Court Finds DOT Inspector General Out of Bounds

June 07, 2001

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The Department of Transportation’s Inspector General was out of bounds when he conducted criminal investigations of trucking companies accused of violating safety rules, an appeals court has ruled.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit told the Inspector General that he must return records and other property taken during certain trucking company investigations in 1998.
But the court denied the trucking companies’ plea for an injunction against the IG conducting more investigations. While the companies are entitled to relief from DOT’s action in 1998, they do not have a subsequent claim unless a specific claim is made, the court said.
Here’s what happened. In 1998, working with the Office of Motor Carriers, the Inspector General’s office got involved in conducting safety compliance reviews of five trucking companies. Claiming authority under the Inspector General Act, IG officials obtained search warrants and seized documents from the companies.
The companies formed an alliance called Truckers United for Safety and challenged the IG action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. TUFS attorney Anthony McMahon told the court that the Inspector General Act does not give the IG authority to conduct compliance investigations – that is the job of the safety agency.
The court agreed, saying that the Office of Inspector General broke the law when it conducted the investigations. But at the same time, the court said that a new law, the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999, gives the Inspector General authority to conduct investigations. Further, the court said that under the new law the Inspector General was entitled to a “summary judgment” – which in effect nullified the trucking companies’ claim.
TUFS appealed that decision, and the appeals court now says that TUFS is correct: “The District Court’s opinion thus appears to suggest that the enactment of the (Safety Improvement Act) mooted appellants’ challenges to the IG’s unlawful actions taken before its passage. That holding is erroneous and it is hereby reversed.”
This decision brings this case to a close – although McMahon says the trucking companies may pursue a claim to recoup their legal fees.
But McMahon insists that the issue still is alive. Contrary to the appeals court’s assertion, “The Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act does not give the Inspector General authority to conduct investigations,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the Inspector General continues this activity,” McMahon said. “This opinion invites another lawsuit – the court is issuing the invitation.”
Based on a statement by David Barnes, a spokesman for DOT Inspector General Kenneth Mead, it appears that the Inspector General will indeed continue his investigations.
“We are pleased that the Court of Appeals did not grant the plaintiffs’ request for declaratory or injunctive relief that would have prevented us from carrying out investigations of motor carriers that violate federal criminal laws,” Barnes said.
“Congress has seen fit to ensure our authority to conduct investigations of criminal violations of federal law in passing the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999. We are consulting with the Department of Justice to review this decision and its implications.”

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