11/26/2014

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Convicted drunk driver employed by government to drive van

Convicted drunk driver employed by government to drive van

SEATTLE -- Your tax dollars are paying the salary of a convicted drunk driver who's crashed his private car, twice, while intoxicated. 

That same government worker is now driving an agency car on the streets of Seattle.  All of this was uncovered in a KOMO 4 Problem Solver "What a Waste" investigation.

That driver is Art Cochran.  He's a plumber working for the taxpayer-funded Seattle Housing Authority.  His job, like every other plumber working for SHA, requires him to drive to various Housing Authority apartment buildings around the city where he does plumbing maintenance. 

But Cochran has a problem: he has a history of drinking and driving. We caught up with him one morning as he was starting work and asked him about his DUI arrests.  His response was short and to the point: "well I'm not supposed to speak to the media."

Cochran's drunk driving history began in 2002 when court records show he crashed his car in a ditch and had a blood alcohol reading of .18 which is more than twice the legal limit. 

Cochran was charged with DUI, but pled guilty to reckless driving. The court sentenced him to two days in jail and required him to attend a Victim's Panel. But we found he was kicked out of that panel for showing up with alcohol in his system. 

When we asked about that he told us, "never happened."  But again, the court records show he blew a .05 at that meeting.

The whole scenario is concerning for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Washington State MADD manager Amy Ezzo.

"Impaired driving impacts every single one of us," Ezzo said.   

Over the past year, a series of horrific fatal crashes in Seattle have brought the high cost of drunk driving to the forefront and forced changes in state law. But those changes happened after the Cochran case.

MADD wouldn't talk specifically about Cochran's case. However, they told us that, in general, by the time someone's arrested they typically have a long history of driving drunk. 

"Before they get arrested," Ezzo said. "They've driven about 80 times while impaired."

In Cochran's case, his 2002 arrest was followed by a second in November of 2011 when he crashed his car into a pole.  His blood test showed a .19.  That's nearly two and a half times the legal limit. Despite a pending criminal case on that charge and the prior alcohol-related crash, Cochran continued driving Housing Authority vans with no restrictions for 15 months.

We asked why SHA would allow Cochran to continue driving like that.  SHA Spokeswoman Michelle Ackerman told us SHA takes such cases very seriously and has a team of people who examine employee driving records whenever an incident occurs. 

"We take very strong precautions to make sure that they're not going to be driving drunk or even had something to drink much less drunk while they're driving one of our vehicles," she said.

SHA finally took Cochran off the streets after he was sentenced last February and his license restricted him to driving vehicles with an  ignition interlock. SHA confirmed to the Problem Solvers that Cochran continued to get paid for and perform the work of a senior plumber. 

But our sources told us he was doing entry level manual labor. When the Problem Solvers went undercover, we found Cochran moving furniture and doing yard work.

Then, last August, SHA put Cochran back behind the wheel and back on the streets. The Housing Authority claims that's acceptable since Cochran paid for and installed an ignition interlock device on one of its vans.

We asked Cochran himself if he thought it was reasonable for him to be driving an SHA-owned, taxpayer-funded van with two DUI arrests on his record.  Again, he declined to comment.   

We also asked SHA's Ackerman why they'd ever let an employee drive with that type of record. 

"Well we take every precaution and certainly in this case we did that," Ackerman said. 

SHA has about 175 employees who drive as part of their jobs. Ackerman said the agency has a very good safety history and that drivers' records are examined at least once a year.

The Problem Solvers did some digging and discovered that Cochran is protected under civil service rules that limit what city agencies can do when it comes to employees with a valid drivers license and asked Ackerman if that prohibits them from firing someone. 

"Certainly there are different circumstances that apply to different types of employment and we need to take those into consideration," she said. 

So Art Cochran continues to drive a Housing Authority van on Seattle streets  -- and taxpayers are footing the bill.

Until the new state law passed this year, drunk drivers didn't have to install an interlock device until they were convicted. Now drivers with any impairment history are required to get an interlock device within five days of their arrest for DUI.

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