Trucking company cited before driver was charged in trooper's death

News-DemocratApril 23, 2013 

The trucking company that employs a driver who was charged with reckless homicide in connection with a traffic crash that killed an Illinois State Trooper was cited and remains under investigation by the federal agency that regulates its operation.

Johnny B. Felton Jr., 52, of Hinesville, Ga., was driving for Dot Transportation Inc. of Mount Sterling on Nov. 26 when police said he struck Trooper Kyle Deatherage's motorcycle, killing the 32-year-old father of two.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration review completed on Jan. 25, showed that Dot Transportation Inc., known as DTI, allowed Felton to drive out-of-state on a Georgia commercial driver's license that restricted him from driving interstate.

Jim Tracy, DTI vice president and attorney who is acting as co-counsel in the wrongful death case filed against Felton and DTI, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Julia Bishop-Cross, a DTI spokeswoman, said the company has cooperated with investigators and has not yet completed its own investigation.

The Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration's review said that DTI was cited for "knowingly allowing, requiring, permitting or authorizing an employee with a commercial driver's license which is suspended, revoked or canceled by a state who is disqualified to operate a commercial vehicle."

Susan Sports, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Driver Services, said that an applicant for an interstate commercial driver's license must complete a medical certification to ensure the person is physically able to drive a commercial vehicle long distances.

Georgia issues an intrastate license for school bus drivers, fire or rescue truck drivers, beekeepers or those who transport human corpses, sick or injured people, Sports said.

DTI has not completed its own internal investigation nor has it seen all the information the grand jury reviewed prior to issuing the indictment, Bishop-Cross said.

"It is DTI's policy that no driver will drive for DTI unless he or she has a valid medical card and is in full compliance with the Federal Motor Safety Act," Bishop-Cross said. "DTI was not informed of and unaware of any reason which would indicate this driver was unable to safely operate DTI's truck. DTI cannot release information about the driver's medical condition because of statutory restrictions and out of respect for the employee's privacy."

The BND obtained an April 5 letter from the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration that cites an ongoing "enforcement investigation" into DTI. Duane DeBruyne, an agency spokesman, confirmed an investigation into DTI was ongoing and declined to comment.

"I'm outraged. I'm sick to my stomach," said Swansea attorney Thomas Q. Keefe Jr., who represents Deatherage's estate in a wrongful death suit. "Once again, this is an example of corporate greed trumping public safety."

A copy of Felton's Georgia license which was issued on July 26, 2012, showed his commercial driver's license showed a restriction that only allowed him to drive within the state of Georgia.

The Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration recommended that DTI:

* Ensure the company obtains a copy of each driver's driving record and reviews it annually, paying particular attention to restrictions and driver's driving history.

* Review the circumstances under which a CDL is required and CDL and drug testing rules apply to both interstate and intrastate commerce.

DTI had a satisfactory safety rating by the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration, according to federal agency's website. In the past two years, DTI drivers were involved in two fatal crashes, including Deatherage, and 15 injury collisions. There is no determination of responsibility of those crashes listed.

A review is a limited look at a specific part of a trucking company's operations, said David Sawvey, an Evansville, Ind., attorney who defends trucking companies. The review can be expanded to get a look at other aspects of operations. If serious infractions are found, the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration can pull the U.S. Department of Transportation number -- essentially halting trucking operations. Fines and other restrictions can also be imposed in the case of smaller offenses, Sawvey said.

DTI, which has 874 trucks and 961 drivers with $500 million in annual revenues, last underwent a safety audit in August 2008. The company was founded by Robert Tracy in 1960. The president of the company is now Joe Tracy and the chief executive officer is John Tracy. Jim Tracy, is chief counsel, senior vice president and secretary of the board. Jim Tracy is married to Illinois House of Representative Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, who sits on the Transportation Committee.

The wrongful death case is pending in Madison County Circuit Court.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

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