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Federal regulators investigate newly formed trucking company

Weeks before federal trucking regulators ordered Gunthers Transport LLC off the road for being an "imminent hazard" to the public, the owner's son filed the paperwork to create a new entity: Clock Transport LLC.

The new trucking company, which shares the Hanover address of Gunthers Transport, was cited for a safety violation last month. One of its trucks failed an inspection in Ohio, which sidelined the vehicle and driver until the problems were fixed.

Maryland State Police said Monday that their troopers have been ordered to pull over and inspect trucks bearing either name. And the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency that shut down Gunthers Transport last week with a rarely used legal action, has begun a new investigation into the safety performance by Clock Transport, officials said.

Federal regulators, citing failure to follow safety rules and keep up truck maintenance, also barred Gunthers Transport from operating under another name. But incorporation papers for Clock Transport in the name of Mark David Gunther Jr., the son of the owner of Gunthers Transport, were filed before the federal order took effect.

"They aren't even trying to hide it that they are a reincarnated carrier," said Capt. Norman Dofflemyer, commander of the Maryland State Police Commercial Vehicle Division.

Gunthers Transport and Gunthers Leasing Transport Inc., also owned by Mark David Gunther Sr., have been involved in a string of legal problems and safety infractions, including falsifying driver logs to mask driver shifts that exceeded federal limits, a civil court judgment stemming from a 1994 crash on the Capitol Beltway that left one person dead, and bankruptcy.

State and federal officials say it is not uncommon in the long-distance hauling business to restart a troubled business under another name, and companies that do so even have a name: "chameleon truckers." Regulators and safety advocates want Congress to close loopholes in regulations.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is "working closely" with Maryland State Police to investigate Clock Transport, a spokeswoman with the federal agency said. She declined to comment further.

The safety administration, seeking to address industry problems, has said it will propose a rule early next year "to shut down any commercial truck company operating with a pattern of evading or masking federal safety violations."

Clock Transport was registered by Mark David Gunther Jr., 25. The two Gunthers list the same Pasadena address as their residence in state incorporation records and with federal regulators. Neither father nor son could be reached for comment. No one answered the phone at Clock Transport or Gunther Transport, and an attorney for Gunthers Transport did not return calls.

Clock Transport obtained a Department of Transportation identification number in September, and the junior Gunther formed the Maryland corporation in October. Clock took out a $750,000 insurance policy, the federal minimum, effective Oct. 21.

On Nov. 8, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration delivered a notice to Gunthers Transport, shutting the company down. In the order, the agency outlined a long history of safety violations and failed inspections. The company has been involved in at least seven serious crashes in the past year, one of which resulted in a fatality.

The order included a provision prohibiting Gunthers Transport from continuing operations as a different entity and selling or leasing its equipment without permission from the agency. Gunthers "cannot avoid this operations out-of-service order by continuing operations under the name of another person or company."

But the junior Gunther had established the new company before the federal order took effect, according to Dofflemyer and documents filed with federal regulators.

"It's amazing, isn't it?" Dofflemyer said.

While Dofflemyer acknowledged that Clock Transport is legally allowed to operate, he said troopers are paying close attention to the company and its drivers.

"If we see their vehicles, they're going to get inspected," Dofflemyer said. "If we see them a couple minutes later, they're going to be inspected again."

Clock Transport has 15 drivers and six trucks, according to documents filed with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Gunthers Transport had 23 drivers and 17 trucks.

On Oct. 20, one of Clock's tractor trailers stopped at the scales on Interstate 70 in Cambridge, Ohio. After a 90-minute inspection, the truck was found to have an inoperative headlight, a defective brake light and worn tires, according to a report filed with the Ohio Public Utilities Commission. The trucker was cited for driving beyond the federal limit of 11 hours. Both truck and driver immediately were ordered off the road.

The driver, Jeffrey H. Harris, 42, insisted he was not ordered by Clock Transport to drive longer than the federal regulations allow.

"I can't put that violation on [Clock]. Being fairly new to the business, I thought I was logging in correctly, and I wasn't," said Harris, who lives in Dover, Del. "I was logging in my hours, but I wasn't taking my breaks as I was supposed to. I have never been told to run over hours. I've never been told to falsify anything. I was told to get the truck there in time."

Harris said he was hired within the last two months by Clock Transport after finding an ad for drivers on the Internet. He said he was aware of past problems involving Gunther companies. He called it unfair for authorities to target Clock Transport.

"They were trying to fix all the problems," Harris said of company officials at Clock.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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