The State Police troop currently under scrutiny for an alleged overtime scam was also at the center of a 2016 inspector general’s investigation into irregularities in the awarding of tow contracts along the Massachusetts Turnpike.
The scathing report said State Police personnel from Troop E diverted customers away from some tow companies, while steering thousands of motorists to a favored contractor whose service was no better.
Despite the findings, troopers retain sweeping powers to play favorites, even today, the current contracts show. Meanwhile, State Police took no action in the wake of the inspector general investigation, according to spokesman David Procopio.
“Towing contracts are highly vulnerable to abuse because there are some extremely lucrative contracts that are given out by government entities,” said former inspector general Gregory Sullivan, who investigated towing contracts before leaving office prior to the latest report.
The report takes on a renewed focus as State Police and Attorney General Maura Healey’s office investigate alleged overtime corruption in the Troop E unit, which is slated to be disbanded soon amid a series of reforms proposed by Colonel Kerry A. Gilpin.
The 2016 investigation concluded that a team from the State Police and MassDOT repeatedly failed to follow contracting rules, which are intended to inject fairness into the system and ensure taxpayers get the best deal. MassDOT, which oversees the process, also failed to properly manage prior towing contracts, resulting in lost revenue for the state.
In addition to raising concerns about contracting, investigators took issue with the way troopers deployed tow companies along the turnpike.
Tow companies are dispatched to disabled vehicles on the turnpike only by authorized MassDOT employees or State Police from Troop E, according to the contracts.
The contracts — which cover all tows on the turnpike — allow companies to charge $90 per tow and a constellation of additional fees that can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars for each call. The big money kicks in — typically hundreds of dollars an hour — when companies tow large commercial vehicles.
The inspector general report noted: “When the favorable treatment brings with it significant financial value to the contractor, it fosters suspicions that the favorable treatment is being or will be reciprocated in clandestine ways by the contractor.”
It’s unclear what impact, if any, the investigation had on State Police towing practices. The transportation department, which pays for troopers on the turnpike, said it instituted a handful of reforms amid the inquiry. But the final report found that more reforms were needed.
State Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha declined to comment on his office’s report. A spokesperson for Attorney General Healey said the investigation was never forwarded to the office. The spokesperson declined to comment further, citing Healey’s pending criminal investigation into Troop E overtime.
Cunha’s predecessor, Sullivan, said he was troubled by the findings.
“That report, in my opinion, should have been sent to the attorney general’s office for their review by their criminal department,” said Sullivan, now a research director at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank. “I am not saying there was absolutely criminality shown there, but there were enough serious allegations of impropriety that it should have been reviewed by the attorney general.”
Procopio, the State Police spokesman, said Friday that the agency determined no internal investigation was warranted following the report.
For years, Troop E has patrolled the 135-mile Mass. Pike under a MassDOT contract.
One of the Troop E commanders eyed in the overtime scandal was a key figure in the process that awarded the current turnpike towing contracts. Lieutenant David Keefe, who commanded Troop E’s Weston police barracks and retired three weeks ago, was one of three troopers on the contract selection panel.
His attorney, Timothy M. Burke, said police played a minor role in the contract selection process and laid blame for any irregularities on MassDOT.
Allegations of misconduct around turnpike contracts date back decades.
Sullivan said he and his investigators discovered numerous problems with towing contracts during his tenure in the inspector general’s office, including a seriously flawed system of awarding exclusive contracts on the turnpike in a 1992 report.
Since that 1992 report, which focused on a system of no-bid contracting, the state instituted a process that requires a competitive bidding system.
Yet that updated process turned out to be problem-plagued, too, according to the latest inspector general report, which reviewed operations from 2013 until July 2016.
The 2016 report found that MassDOT created a six-member team, three MassDOT employees and three lieutenants from Troop E, who lacked experience to evaluate bids but who appeared to play favorites toward one company, Perfection Towing in Watertown. The team allegedly stacked the deck against Perfection’s competitors.
Perfection was awarded a three-year contract in 2016 for one of the most heavily traveled sections of the turnpike, from Boston to Weston.
The inspector general’s office believed it is “likely” the three officers “influenced” the team to award low scores to Perfection’s competitors. Investigators reviewed internal police e-mails that were derogatory toward competitors but found that Troop E’s own official records of customer complaints did not support those findings.
“Favoritism . . . undermines companies’ willingness to compete for contracts in the future,” the report said.
The investigation, first reported by MassLive in 2016, did not state why the three police officers on the selection panel appeared to favor Perfection.
Perfection owner Michael Penta declined to comment, referring a reporter to the company’s controller, George Laroche. Laroche said he was unfamiliar with the company’s towing operations and referred the call to Perfection’s general manager, Kirk Hascunda, who was unavailable.
According to the towing contract Penta signed with MassDOT in October 2016, towing services account for roughly one-third of the company’s revenue. Perfection also offers auto body repair and services, and inspections.
MassDOT issued a round of three-year towing contracts less than a month after the inspector general released its report in September 2016.
A MassDOT spokesman issued a statement Thursday saying the agency adopted “significant changes and improvements” that are reflected in the new contracts. It said it has created a new team to procure future contracts but did not explain whether State Police are still part of that team.