Is Trucking Safety For Sale?

Three quarters of all of America's goods get to you over the nation's highways, carried by nearly two million trucks. Now, as CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports, the qualifications of those behind the wheels of those big rigs are being questioned.

"If you look at our statistics, miles driven in the state of Illinois by semi truck drivers, it's up by about 74%. I think fatalities are down by almost 20% and accidents are down considerably," says Illinois Governor-elect George Ryan.

The Governor-elect is proud of his state's safety record. But if you ask truck drivers, they're not so confident.

"It's kinda scary," says one worried trucker.

They've heard that some truckers out there with them might not know what they're doing. They've heard claims that commercial drivers licenses, or CDLs required to drive the big rigs, were sold in Illinois.

The Secretary

of State's office runs the CDL license operations. And for the past eight years, the Secretary of State has been George Ryan. Ryan claims he's been vigilant against corruption transferring or firing some 30 employees.

"We've done what I think we could to uncover any wrong-doing in the office," says Ryan.

However, a federal investigation has confirmed an extortion scheme at the licensing offices. A manager, assistant manager and a former license office worker were arrested. And, some of the money collected, investigators say, went to Mr. Ryan's successful campaign for Governor this fall.

Asked if he had any role in that type of operation the Governor-elect responded, "Absolutely not."

But, investigators say, there is no question. Over the years, big money was raised from the very people Ryan's office was supposed to regulate.

Governor-elect George Ryan (CBS)
Ryan denies that fundraising was done on his behalf at some of these facilities saying, "Not in the facility, no. Not as far as we knew that there was any fund raising going on."

But copies of checks obtained by CBS News reveal that thousands of dollars from trucking companies and driving schools went to the Citizens for Ryan fund. Companies told CBS they felt strong armed into contributing. In one case alone, a female manager at a license office raised $82,000.

CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr spoke to Ryan about the checks in question:

Orr: "I have a couple of xeroxed copies if you want to look at them. Star truck driving school for a thousand dollars for Citizens or Ryan."

Ryan: "There's nothing illegal about that."

Orr: "Lazar's trucking, Citizens for Ryan. Here are the receipts signed by the woman."

Ryan: "Let me see."

Orr: "And she sold them to the very companies and people that the office is supposed to be regulating?"

Ryan: "Right. And that's gone on for years and that doesn't make it right. We discontinued that policy. And it doesn't happen now."

Orr: "When did you discontinue that?"

Ryan: "Several months ago."

But not before the campaign raised hunudreds of thousands of dollars, say investigators. Some of that money went to buy licenses for unqualified drivers.

That worries one watchdog group in Chicago.

"The American public, as a result, had thousands of people on the highway who are not qualified to drive those trucks, who are driving them all over the expressways of America," says Terrence Brunner, Executive Director, Better Government Association.

It's shaken auto safety experts as well.

Highway traffic (CBS)

"When you're talking about a large truck that's fully loaded on crowded highways today they're operating right at the edge of safety and you put an unqualified driver in the cab of that truck, it's an accident waiting to happen," says Clarance Ditlow, Executive Director, Center for Auto Safety.

"We have called for a re-testing of all of those people who went through the facilities," says Ryan.

Orr: "Can you tell me with any certainty that there are no truck drivers out there that shouldn't be out there operating big rigs?"

Ryan: "Well, as far as we can tell, we have done everything we can do to make sure there are no people out there like that. Are there? There may well be, I don't know."

As for those license office employees who were arrested on extortion charges, they have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the on-going federal investigation.

Orr: "Are you at all concerned that they may turn to point fingers at you?

Ryan: "No, not at all."

Ryan added he is not a target of the investigation. But federal investigators are still sorting through boxes of records and documents they've seized. And more arrests are expected.

Reported By Bob Orr