A Vancouver company that tests and analyzes fuel is under investigation by the Washington State Patrol based on allegations that it falsified analysis reports and failed to test fuel samples according to certain standards.
FuelOnly Inc.’s contract to test fuel samples for the state Department of Agriculture has been suspended through Jan. 8 as WSP continues its investigation. State officials may seek to recover taxpayer dollars paid to the company, but the amount they would try to recoup depends on the results of the police investigation.
The WSP declined to discuss the details of what it has confirmed is a criminal investigation. “We’re investigating a concern that the state paid for work that was not performed,” said WSP spokesman Bob Calkins.
Steve Talbot, the Vancouver attorney representing FuelOnly, said in an e-mail to The Columbian that the company’s president — Malala Pou — has cooperated with state officials and has nothing to hide. “What possible motive could my client have to falsify data submitted to the state? He can gain nothing from doing this and can only hurt himself and his company.”
It’s a complex situation that involves a fuel-testing contract intended to prevent damage to vehicles, an investigation by the Agriculture Department that preceded the one launched by WSP and a lot of finger-pointing on the part of FuelOnly officials and the whistle-blower who first raised concerns.
The fuel-testing work that’s in question occurred under a March 2009 contract FuelOnly had with the Agriculture Department to test diesel and biodiesel fuels. The testing is aimed at gauging the quality of gas and diesel fuel used in vehicles in Washington in hopes of preventing particulates from damaging cars and trucks, according to Jason Kelly, communications director for the Agriculture Department.
Jim Erskine, spokesman for the state Department of General Administration, which managed the contract for the Agriculture Department, said he’s not aware of any complaints about fuel that was tested by FuelOnly “harming any engines or vehicles.”
The Agriculture Department has paid FuelOnly a total of about $620,000, which includes work the company did going back to June 2007. The last payment the Agriculture Department made to FuelOnly was on Sept. 9. Kelly said one of the challenges is to figure out when FuelOnly “began to report results that did not meet the terms of their March 2009 contract,” which would determine how much in taxpayer dollars the state would seek to recover from the company.
Concerns over FuelOnly’s work for the Agriculture Department intensified on June 2 when Kirk Robinson, a program manager for the department, initiated an investigation into possible violations of the contract by the company.
That investigation “uncovered hard evidence” that FuelOnly “may be falsifying test results,” according to a statement from Dan Newhouse, director of the Agriculture Department, provided to The Columbian by Kelly, the department’s communications director.
As a result, Robinson asked the Washington State Patrol to get involved. He sent an Oct. 4 letter to Chief John Batiste requesting an investigation.
On Oct. 26, the state Department of General Administration, manager of the FuelOnly contract, informed the company that its contract was suspended effective Nov. 1. Since then, the suspension of the company’s contract has been extended twice. The work to test diesel and bio-diesel fuels was given to another firm pending the outcome of the investigation.
Pou and Talbot said the company is being unfairly targeted, and they put the blame for FuelOnly’s problems on Eric Dekker, a former employee whose concerns about the Vancouver business first spurred the investigation.
Talbot alleged that Dekker is behind the faulty fuel tests and analysis. Talbot also said he’s planning a civil lawsuit against Dekker for hurting FuelOnly’s business.
Dekker said everything he’s done has been to help the state Department of Agriculture and the Washington State Patrol with their investigations, and he denied Talbot’s allegations. If he’s the one behind FuelOnly’s problems, Dekker asked, then why didn’t the company file a police report?
Pou and Talbot said FuelOnly has taken steps to deal with the company’s problems, including firing one employee and improving the company’s lab procedures.
Pou said about a third of his business depended on the state contract that was suspended. According to the records compiled by an investigator for the Agriculture Department, Pou said that “he trusted his managers,” that he may have been misled, but that he “wants to get everything straightened out so he can continue with his business and hopefully the business with” the Agriculture Department.