Federal investigation closed on awarding of fee office contracts

Thursday, October 5, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:12 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Matt Blunt’s administration was cleared of wrongdoing in the awarding of Missouri license office contracts as a federal prosecutor said Wednesday that he had closed an investigation without pursuing any criminal charges.

The investigation into the awarding of license offices under Blunt’s administration had been widely reported though not officially confirmed until U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins of Little Rock, Ark., took the somewhat unusual step of doing so.

“In light of that unfortunate disclosure and the publicity it spawned, it is appropriate to confirm certain facts,” Cummins said in a written statement.

“First, the matter has been closed with no indictments sought or returned,” Cummins said. “Second, at no time was Governor Blunt a target, subject, or witness in the investigation, nor was he implicated in any allegation being investigated.”

Missouri has 183 privately run offices that collect vehicle sales taxes and issue vehicle and driver’s licenses on behalf of the state. The offices commonly are referred to as “fee offices,” because the contractors get to keep a fee for each transaction. They long have been political patronage plums that governors award to supporters.

Blunt, a Republican, took office in January 2005 after 12 years of Democratic governors and replaced many of the fee office agents. He also privatized 11 previously state-run license offices, created one new office and required all the license offices to extend their working hours and submit business plans to the state.

Another new trend also emerged. Instead of running their license offices themselves, some fee office agents contracted with third parties to manage the offices.

Blunt’s administration had maintained it had no role in whether its license office contractors chose to hire third-party managers, some of whom had been his political supporters.

Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson praised Wednesday’s announcement by the U.S. attorney

“This affirms what we’ve said all along — that we have overseen this process with integrity and a clear focus on providing good customer service and reducing cost to taxpayers,” Jackson said. Cummins said such inquiries “are not uncommon” but — unlike this one — generally are able to be conducted in secrecy to protect both the investigation and the presumption of innocence.

The Missouri Republican Party claimed Wednesday that the investigation had been driven by Democrats and hyped by the media.

The Missouri Democratic Party denied assertions it had fueled the inquiry.

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