Senator wants to rethink purchase of DUI-test device

Posted by Reginald Fields/Plain Dealer Bureau Chief November 21, 2008 20:45PM

COLUMBUS -- A state senator who sits on a board that this week approved without comment spending $6.4 million for new drunken driving testing machines now says he wants the purchase to be reconsidered.

Sen. John Carey, a Jackson County Republican, is concerned the Ohio Controlling Board acted too hastily after he learned from reports in The Plain Dealer this week that several states have dismissed or delayed thousands of drunken driving cases because of questions about the accuracy of the Intoxilyzer 8000.

Carey also said he is concerned about lawsuits against the company that makes the machine, CMI Inc. of Owensboro, Ky., and the relationship between the manufacturer and the Ohio official, Dean Ward, who picked the company for the exclusive contract.

Carey, who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, wrote a letter Friday to Joe Secrest, president of the Controlling Board, asking that approval be pulled back until "several issues can be addressed."

"My greatest concern is that, as a result of pending litigation in other states, DWI offenders could potentially get off as a result of using these machines," Carey wrote.

"At the very least, it seems likely we will be in for lengthy and costly litigation until issues surrounding CMI's refusal to release source code information have been cleared up," he wrote.

Carey, citing the newspaper articles, also said the fact that Ward -- chief of the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Testing at the Ohio Department of Health -- admitted having friends at CMI "is very troubling to me."

Secrest said Carey doesn't need his permission to recall the approved item. Carey can do it himself at the Controlling Board's next meeting Dec. 1. If a majority agree, it will be reconsidered, said Secrest, who is not a lawmaker.

The controlling board's six legislator members include four Republicans, so Carey figures to have the votes.

Ward, 55, a Kentucky native, this week said he is friends with CMI President Toby Hall. But he said the friendship "absolutely" had nothing to do with his decision.

Ward also said he has used the company's products dating back to his years as a Cincinnati police officer when he trained other officers how to use alcohol breath-testing equipment.

Ward could not be reached for comment Friday.

"We want to see the process move forward," said health department spokesman Bret Atkins. "We will be meeting with the senator to address any concerns he may have."

A spokesman for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, also involved in selecting and purchasing the Intoxilyzer 8000, said the agency will work to address Carey's concerns.

The health department selected the machine, and public safety controls the money.

The money is coming from a federal grant intended to help Ohio upgrade its drunken driving enforcement. Since 2005, Ward led a work group that tested and determined what equipment to buy.

Ward said he wrote the specifications for what ideally would be Ohio's new breath-alcohol machine. Of 17 companies asked to consider bidding for the contract, only CMI made a device that fit the criteria.

CMI is charging Ohio almost $9,000 per unit, although other states that used a competitive bidding process paid less.

CMI competitors, like National Patent Analytical Systems Inc. of Mansfield, which made about 90 percent of the drunken driving testing machines currently used, accused Ward of steering the contract to his friends at CMI.

National Patent President John Fusco also said he could not understand why Ohio would agree to an exclusive deal with an out-of-state company.

CMI is being sued by defense attorneys in Florida, Arizona and Minnesota who want the company to release its source code, the software that shows how the machines work.

Attorneys argue the machines can be manipulated to give off different readings within seconds.

Ward, in the interview this week, defended the company, saying he had tested the Intoxilyzer 8000 and thought it was reliable.