The politics of protection
How George Barber’s career as a CHP compliance officer derailed after Assemblyman Rick Keene intervened on behalf of the trucking industry
As the fiery Bay Area freeway crash of a gasoline tanker truck vividly reminded us recently, the highways are full of potential catastrophes on 18 wheels. We are wise to wonder what is being done to protect us from them. Which brings us to the story of George Barber and the role Chico Assemblyman Rick Keene played in the derailing of his career.
Three years ago, Barber was a California Highway Patrol officer serving in Butte County. His specialty was hazardous-materials compliance, and he’d been doing it since the mid-1980s. He knew the regulations governing fuel transportation as well or better than anyone. Although he no longer works for the CHP, current CHP officers still describe him as “the guru” and “probably the foremost hazmat expert in the state.”
Then, in 2004, he ran afoul of the trucking industry. Trucking companies thought his level of enforcement was too intense—that he not only cited truckers for violations they considered picayune, but was also out of whack with enforcement practices elsewhere in the state.
“When he’d find infractions that normally were considered correctable, he’d throw the book at us,” David Ray, the safety director for Stockton-based Williams Tank Lines, said in a phone interview. Too often, that meant Barber would call out a full hazmat team, which the company was required to pay for, and then order the truck to be off-loaded and locked down until repaired. These expenses, on top of court fines, could add up to thousands of dollars for what other CHP inspectors considered minor infractions.
Williams is a good-sized company, operating 100 trucks out of nine sites in California, including Chico, and two in Nevada. It had a number of run-ins with Barber over the years, and Ray was ticked off about them. Eventually, he got together with representatives of other trucking companies. They began collecting evidence against Barber, and eventually took their complaints to Keene.
Barber says he was just doing his job—too well, apparently. “I had a very high conviction rate,” he acknowledged recently.
He’s a trim, suntanned man with wavy brown hair that falls over his collar and a thick goatee showing signs of gray. These days he works part-time for the Butte County District Attorney’s Office as an environmental hazmat analyst.
Several years ago, he said, a colleague informed him that the trucking industry was “building a book on me to take me out.” This amounted to, among other things, filing a lot of complaints. “Toward the back end, they filed a complaint almost every time I stopped a chemical truck.”
What apparently triggered Keene’s involvement, Barber said, was a case in Sacramento. A loaded Williams tanker truck came through the scales there with a 6-inch crack and fuel seeping out. Using an air meter to verify it was fuel, Barber cited the company and ordered the truck off-loaded.
When it came time to go to court, however, Barber got a call saying that his captain wanted to dismiss the charges. He mentioned that the owner of the trucking company was a friend of the CHP commissioner. The captain then wrote to the court saying the citation had been written in error.
The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office refused to go along. “There’s no error in this case,” a deputy DA told Barber. “A monkey could win this case.” So it went to trial.
Ray was determined to fight the charges. Though not trained as a lawyer, he nevertheless showed the judge that Barber had bought the air meter himself and wasn’t trained in its use, he said. Williams was convicted nonetheless.
Ray said he was successful, however, in convincing the judge that the violation “was not as heinous” as the prosecution had contended it was. “It was what we call a ‘sweat,’ a slight, slight seep that doesn’t drip but does collect dust,” he explained. The company paid a total of $600 in fines, $200 for the “sweat” and $400 for having an outdated sticker, he said.
Williams’ owner was “infuriated,” Barber related, and contacted Keene, who eventually convened a meeting that included a large group from the trucking industry as well as the CHP commissioner at the time, Dwight “Spike” Helmick, and other CHP brass.
Barber, it turned out, was right about the truckers “building a book” on him. At the meeting they presented evidence of what they insisted was extortion on his part.
In the early 1990s, Barber had developed—with the CHP’s permission—a software program that enabled truckers to know exactly what they needed to do with any chemical. When they entered its identification number, the program provided all the appropriate compliance requirements.
“It was helpful,” Barber explained. “And it was a good enforcement tool.”
The truckers charged that Barber was citing drivers and then offering to let them off the hook if they’d buy the CD.
The CHP did an extensive internal investigation of the charges as well as Barber’s enforcement record and found that he’d done nothing wrong, but he nonetheless was moved out of his position and given a new job that didn’t involve commercial enforcement. The reason given, he related, was that he had caused ill will and a “perception” that he was unfair.
His current employer, District Attorney Mike Ramsey, uses a stronger word. Barber, he said, had become “radioactive.”
Barber’s reputation was still widely known, however, so he continued to get assistance requests from other police agencies. In the year following his transfer, he said, he had a total of four interactions with trucks.
So another meeting was held, at which the trucking companies angrily reminded the CHP of its promise that Barber would never touch another truck. Afterwards Barber was given a desk job in Oroville, but he didn’t like it and in 2006 took early retirement. That’s when he went to work for Ramsey.
Keene insists that, in calling the meetings, he was doing something that he does often: helping constituents.
“Half my job as a legislator is to help run interference between people and their government,” he said during a recent phone interview while he was driving back to Chico from the Capitol.
The reason he called the first meeting, he said, was because the trucking companies had complained that, because of Barber, they were being treated differently in Butte County than anywhere else in the state. What they wanted was a predictable response.
“Do you need to have a Code 3 rollout every time you have a drip on the tank?” Keene asked rhetorically. “It’s not about George Barber. My role is to ask, ‘Are we evenly complying with the law?’ “
Ultimately, Keene said, it was the CHP’s decision to move Barber out of commercial enforcement.
Ed Hopkins, a veteran CHP compliance officer out of the Oroville office, was Barber’s union rep at the time. He confirms that the internal investigation completely cleared Barber.
“These guys [the trucking companies] get hammered pretty hard in court,” he said, adding that it was ironic that Keene, a lawmaker, was involved in constraining an officer who was trying to enforce the laws.
It’s fair to say Ramsey doesn’t think highly of Keene’s involvement in this matter, either. “I don’t know him to be on any transportation committee,” he said caustically.
“These trucks are extremely dangerous—as we recently found out,” he added. “You can think of them as rolling bombs.”
The way Ramsey sees it, Keene was less than a disinterested observer in the process. “He was concerned that George was too tough on [the trucking companies]” and “insisted [he] be removed from the highways.”
There’s an epilogue to this tale. On March 27 of this year, local CHP officers called the District Attorney’s Office and invited Barber to join them at a truck inspection site on the Midway in south Chico, near the tank farm. They were training a new compliance officer and wanted to take advantage of his expertise.
It was pure coincidence that, of the several trucks waved over for inspection that day, the only one with a problem belonged to Williams Tank Lines.
The truck had a spot on its left front bulkhead, Barber said, where apparently leaking vapor had created an oily spot that had become dusty. When the inspectors wiped off the dust, they found a crack in a weld. The trucking company may call it “sweating,” but, Barber said, “whatever you want to call it, there’s no provision in the law for it.”
The county’s hazmat team was called out. It determined that the truck was indeed leaking, so the inspectors cited it and ordered it off-loaded.
Again, Williams thought the response was unnecessarily harsh—and expensive. Because Barber was on the scene, the company figured he was behind it.
“When they saw him again, they just went nuts,” Ramsey said.
Subsequently, Keene convened yet another meeting between local CHP commanders and representatives of the trucking industry. How much it revolved around Barber, nobody is saying. Lt. Steve Dowling, commander of the Oroville CHP office, insisted the focus was on “making sure everybody knows what the responses are going to be” when trucks are out of compliance. “We were trying to get everybody on the same page.”
It seems unlikely, however, that the CHP will be availing itself of George Barber’s expertise anytime soon.