UPDATE: State auditor focuses on Missouri license offices

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 | 6:22 p.m. CDT; updated 9:29 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 18, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich raised concerns Tuesday about the bidding and monitoring of license offices responsible for handling motor vehicle registration, titling and driver's license renewals.

Schweich released two audits Tuesday that raised concerns about how state officials examine bids for contracts to operate the offices, calling it the first significant examination since Missouri started competitively bidding contracts for all 183 license offices. Schweich, a Republican, said auditors found no evidence that office contracts were steered to favored bidders, but said some of the problems could create the impression of impropriety.

"If the purpose of creating this new system was to avoid allegations of political bias, it wasn't successful," he said.

Missouri's license offices have been a touchy political issue in recent years. Governors for years awarded allies the contracts to manage the offices. But after reports that federal authorities were investigating license office arrangements, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt's administration began seeking competitive bids for some offices. A couple of months later, the FBI cleared Blunt's administration of any wrongdoing. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon announced after winning election in 2008 that he would seek competitive bids for all the license offices.

In the audits released Tuesday, Schweich said state officials should better ensure those who win license office contracts comply with promises made during bidding and suggested that license office employees be required to attend training about fraudulent documents.

The auditor's office also reported that state officials increased the points awarded to not-for-profit or governmental entities after requesting bids. In addition, Schweich pointed to concerns about a southwestern Missouri group that in late 2009 was allowed to rebid for office contracts after it was found to have violated certain terms. The group, Springfield-based Alternative Opportunities Inc., was allowed to change bids under review for other license offices.

The nonprofit, which assists children and people with disabilities, later won several contracts and now manages 12 license offices. Alternative Opportunities spokesman Reggie McElhannon said the organization does its best to operate license offices well and that it also has lost when bidding for some offices.

"We feel like our record shows that we have not been shown favoritism," McElhannon said.

License office bids are reviewed by the state Office of Administration and the Department of Revenue. Officials said they focused on awarding contracts to bidders with the best locations, most experience and who could provide the best customer service. The Department of Revenue said it monitors and supervises all license offices. The agency said it has implemented some changes suggested by the auditor and that other recommendations are under review.

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