In the first criminal case of its kind nationally, a Maryland trucking company and its president were found guilty yesterday of falsifying driver logs in order to get around federal limits prohibiting truckers from spending too much time behind the wheel.
Gunther Leasing Transport Inc. of Hanover is the first company in the nation to be charged criminally for altering log books. Safety officials hope the convictions will deter trucking companies from forcing drivers to take on overwhelming work loads and unrealistic delivery deadlines.
"This verdict sends the strongest message to date that this is a serious issue," said David K. Willis, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in Washington. A study showed driver fatigue contributes to 30 percent to 40 percent of all heavy truck accidents.
"If the penalties are strong, it's going to get the attention of the companies," Mr. Willis said.
Traditionally, such companies have paid civil fines much lower than the $2.5 million penalty the company could be forced to pay. In addition, company president Mark David Gunther could receive five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each of his seven convictions.
Yesterday's verdict followed a four-year FBI and Department of Transportation investigation and a one-month trial.
A federal jury convicted the company and its president on one count of conspiracy to defraud and four counts of making false statements to investigators. Gunther, 41, also was convicted of perjury.
'Upping the ante'
U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said she also expects the criminal conviction will be a wake-up call for the industry.
"We think this is going to have an impact on the companies in violation by upping the ante," she said.
Defense lawyers had argued that company drivers decided on their own to drive excessive hours and falsify their driving logs and that neither the president nor the company should be held responsible.
But former employees said that supervisors instructed them how to falsify their books and that Mark Gunther condoned the practice. Two said it was Gunther himself who ordered the destruction of several months' worth of potentially incriminating driver logs.
"Everybody in that company knew exactly who was behind it," Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Sale told jurors at the close of the case. "Mr. Gunther looked to everyone but himself to place the blame."
Ms. Sale and Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew White said yesterday that they had not decided what sentence to recommend.
Sentencing date deferred
Defense lawyers have asked for acquittal on Gunther's two perjury convictions on technical grounds, and U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson deferred a sentencing date pending that decision.
Defense lawyers David Irwin and Joseph Murtha both expressed disappointment in the verdict and said appeals are being considered.
Ken Buck, vice president of operations for Gunther, said: "There are a lot of very complex issues here, a lot of public sentiment. We still believe in what we do. Our clients have been very supportive, and we certainly hope those people will continue to support us.
Gunther was founded in 1979. It has about 165 trucks and about 300 employees. Its safety record is rated "satisfactory" -- the highest possible rating -- by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Federal law says drivers may be on the road no more than 10 hours a day followed by eight consecutive hours off duty.
The FBI and Federal Highway Administration began the investigation after numerous drivers filed complaints in 1991. Drivers claimed that after being hired, they were instructed how to falsify their driving logs so it would appear they had complied with the regulations. They said it was standard practice for the company to require them to exceed the limits.
Prosecutors said several accidents involving Gunther trucks had been linked to driver fatigue. In September 1994, a Gunther driver was cited in a crash on the Capital Beltway that killed a passenger riding in the cab and injured several construction workers.
One driver complained to transportation officials after flipping his rig on a New Jersey interstate. He told investigators that Gunther dispatchers ordered him to complete his route despite his complaints that he was tired and needed to rest.
In April 1993, another Gunther driver crashed his tractor-trailer after falling asleep at the wheel on a Pennsylvania interstate. The accident occurred during a round-the-clock trip that he had falsely recorded in his log book.