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Wiping clean the safety records of trucking companies

Kelly Linhart, a professional truck driver, stopped on the side of the road to do a routine truck inspection in September 2008. Moments later, the father of four lay dead on the asphalt, struck and killed by another trucker, Daniel Clarey, who veered out of his lane, according to the police report.

"[Daniel Clarey] fell asleep by his own admission, ran off the road, and ran over Kelly Linhart dragging him to a horrible death," said attorney Michael Leizerman, who represented the Linhart family.

In a deposition, Clarey admitted to being under the influence of methamphetamine at the time of the crash and to a previous criminal record for methamphetamine and marijuana.

After the crash Clarey, pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and driving under the influence of intoxicants. He was sentenced to 40 months, according to court documents.

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How was a driver with a drug history behind the wheel? Leizerman said Clarey's employer, Forrest Rangeloff, was operating what is known as a "chameleon carrier," a trucking company that re-registers with the U.S. Department of Transportation to avoid liability or problems with their safety ratings.

"I see too often in this case and other cases that I handle where the owner of the company simply closes down, refuses to pay the fines, and starts another company," Leizerman said.

In a deposition, Rangeloff said he opened a new trucking company because he could not get a satisfactory rating, which is something the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gives to companies to show they are in compliance with regulations.

Kelly Linhart, above, was a professional truck driver and a father of four. He was run over by another truck driver who veered out of his lane, according to the police report.
Source: Linhart family
Kelly Linhart, above, was a professional truck driver and a father of four. He was run over by another truck driver who veered out of his lane, according to the police report.

Rangeloff's second company, Range Transportation, received a conditional rating, a warning that improvement was needed.

Even after the crash that killed Linhart, Rangeloff was able to file for a new trucking company, which he called Range-It Express. That company was later shut down for not paying fines, according to motor carrier agency's website.

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Forrest Rangeloff did not return CNBC's requests for comment.

According to the Government Accountability Office, Rangeloff's companies are not an isolated incident. The office found 1,136 new applicants in just 2010 that it suspected were chameleon carriers, according to their most recent report on the issue.

"I see them disproportionately being involved in deaths and significant injuries," Leizerman said.

The GAO found that 18 percent of suspected chameleon carriers were involved in severe accidents, like the crash that killed Linhart, compared with 6 percent of non-chameleon carriers.

The accident scene after Kelly Linhart was struck.
Source: Police photo
The accident scene after Kelly Linhart was struck.

As of the March 2012 report, the GAO said federal motor carrier agency was screening only bus companies and moving companies, 2 percent of new applicants, to make sure they did not have prior troubled records.

GAO and the motor carrier agency now say more is being done. "What we have done is created a system we call vetting. … Are there patterns in this company's operations that show that they actually are sharing an address with a company we've shut down before?" said FMCSA chief Anne Ferro, who is stepping down on Aug. 25.

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Ferro also told CNBC there is a series of penalties for chameleon carriers, including a company being shut down.

But the vetting was too late for the Linhart family. They settled out of court with the company that hired Forrest Rangeloff for a confidential amount. Rangeloff was dropped from the lawsuit.

—By CNBC's Jennifer Schlesinger and Eamon Javers