BRISTOL, VA (WJHL) – Public records reveal Crabtree Buick Pontiac GMC got more business from Bristol Virginia Utilities over a several year period than any other local dealership and a Community Watchdog investigation found out the man in charge of preparing the bids for at least some of those sales is BVU’s new chairman and longtime board member Jim Clifton.
Clifton is the general sales manager of the dealership and is also in charge of its new fleet vehicle sales to political subdivisions. BVU records reveal he was directly involved with at least $100,000 of the dealership’s sales to BVU during his time on the public utility’s board. Since 2010, records show Crabtree’s made more than $476,000 worth of transactions with BVU. Clifton was appointed to the board in 2007.
Clifton says those sales were all the result of a sealed bid process. He says BVU would send out a proposal, multiple dealerships would respond and the low bidder would win.
“I didn’t influence anybody to take our bid,” Clifton said. “Either we’re the low bidder or we’re not.”
When Crabtree was involved, a little more than half of the time, records show the dealership was the low bidder. In at least three instances, documents reveal Clifton was directly involved with the sale of vehicles to BVU. Twice he went so far as to actually sign the bid sheets.
“Can you see where someone might say, ‘That’s a conflict of interest?’” we asked Clifton.
“It would have to be perceived that it’s a conflict of interest, because I feel like in actuality there is no conflict of interest and I never consulted with anybody at BVU to see where I stood on a bid,” Clifton said.
“There were two bids where your name was on it. You don’t think that was a conflict of interest?” I asked.
“Was it the low bid?” he responded. “If I’m the low bid and I have no knowledge of who the other bidders are and what they bid…I’m a citizen of Bristol that’s trying to get the best rate and the best value for everything.”
While Clifton does not see it as a conflict of interest, former BVU board member Doug Fleenor can’t see it as anything but a conflict.
“I don’t think that if you serve on a board that the business you work for or your profession should benefit in any way financially, period,” Fleenor said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“We have a difference of opinion,” Clifton said.
Clifton says it’s only fair to give the only new car dealership inside the city limits a chance to compete for business. It’s important to note, at least eight times Crabtree bid for a vehicle from BVU but lost the sale, because the bid was too high, according to records.
Win or lose, Clifton says the sales had little impact on the business’ bottom line. He and his boss say fleet sales are not all that profitable. Instead, they say the only real goal is to get the brand out on the road.
“I enjoy seeing BVU drive a GMC truck,” Clifton said.
Aside from that feeling of satisfaction, both tell me Clifton never received anything else as result of these sales; no bonuses, commissions or raises.
“There’s no financial interest to me other than the business staying viable,” Clifton said. “I wouldn’t want Crabtree going out of business.”
That is an important point. By law, when he turns in his annual financial disclosure form he’s supposed to list his salaried employer. In the last four years documents reveal he only listed Crabtree twice. He calls it an oversight and has since promised to correct his latest filing.
“There’s going to be some people that say, ‘Just because you work for them and just because you’re on the board, it just seems odd,” I said.
“People can perceive what they want and I just know I have honesty and integrity and if they ask me for a bid, then I’m going to supply a bid,” Clifton said. “I have distanced myself to maybe minimize that public perception.”
He and his boss say you won’t see Clifton’s name on BVU bid sheets anymore. A couple years ago, just as BVU was beginning to deal with increased scrutiny, Clifton says the utility’s then attorney gave him some friendly advice.
“Walt (Bressler) said, ‘Jim, you need to distance yourself from that.’ So I took his advice and tried to distance myself as much as I could.”
Clifton says from then on the dealership’s owner was responsible for signing any bids. Clifton says the car dealership hasn’t been part of BVU’s bid process for quite some time, at least since August 2013, according to BVU.
“Somebody I think at BVU said, ‘Let’s take Crabtree off the list until all of this clears out,’ but for whatever reason we haven’t got any bid requests,” Clifton said.
Clifton’s boss Keith Crabtree says looking back on it, he can see where someone could perceive this as a conflict of interest.
“I can see where someone would see that if they didn’t understand the bid process,” Crabtree said. “I see that now. You can’t do anything about the past. I never thought it was a conflict of interest, because of the money involved. The lowest bid wins”
Although both he and Clifton insist every bid they won, they won fair and square, Crabtree admits from here on out he should be the one signing the bids.
“I need to do the BVU bids in the future,” Crabtree said. “That’s probably not a bad idea.”
Clifton is not the first BVU board member to work for a dealership that did business with the utility. At one point in the not so distant past Bristol Mayor Archie Hubbard used to be a stockholder and employee of Goodpasture Motor Company, Incorporated. During Hubbard’s time on the BVU board, records reveal BVU bought more than $20,000 worth of goods and services from that company.
Mayor Hubbard says he didn’t see anything wrong with his relationship since he was not involved in Goodpasture’s bid process and the BVU board was not directly involved with every purchase. Instead, he says the board approves a general budget and BVU employees handle the specifics.
Copyright WJHL 2015. All rights reserved.
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