Clearing the air is what it does best, boasts Envirotest Systems, the embattled operator of Colorado's new auto-emissions testing program. But the Arizona-based company under fire from residents faced with long lines and higher test fees does some of its best work in smoke-filled rooms.

Two years ago, before Colorado legislators even began debate on a centralized testing program, Envirotest hired one of the most influential lobbyists in the state to press its case. And though the company had the highest of three competing bids, the state's evaluation committee--which included the president of a business group that partnered itself with Envirotest in the proposal--unanimously awarded the high-rolling firm the seven-year, $140 million contract.

The company is led by Chester C. Davenport, a 54-year-old attorney and former transportation official in the Carter administration who has maintained a network of Washington contacts. Since Davenport acquired the company in 1990, Envirotest has come to dominate the growing field of emissions testing, climbing to the top by employing a business style that is alternately shrewd and brutal.

In the fall of 1993, when a rival company beat out Envirotest for an emissions-testing contract in Connecticut, lobbyists for Davenport's company went to the statehouse and convinced then-governor Lowell Weicker to demand a reversal of the selection made by his own motor vehicles department. When the department's director stood by the agency's choice--a company that was based in Connecticut and had tendered the low bid--an angry Weicker fired him and awarded the contract to Envirotest.

Now a groundswell of opposition to centralized testing in Colorado has the company fighting for its local turf. Already defensive following the stumbling start of the Air Care Colorado program earlier this month, Envirotest faces rebellion in the ranks of a formerly supportive legislature, where lawmakers are talking about either delaying the new testing system or killing it outright.

Envirotest, which has testing contracts in nine states and is competing for work in two others, is determined not to let that happen. And its sense of urgency in trying to squelch a possible uprising in Colorado has been heightened by events in other states as well as in Congress, where several bills have been introduced to delay or repeal federal requirements for centralized testing. After building most of the 85 testing stations called for in its contract with Pennsylvania, the company was set on its heels when the legislature there voted to postpone implementing the program until the end of March. Having apparently won the contract for New York City, the company has been forced to wait for the dust to clear from Governor Mario Cuomo's election upset before pressing the new administration to sign off on the deal. A New Hampshire program to be run by Envirotest has been put on hold by that state for two years due to concerns about public acceptance. And though Envirotest looks like the clear favorite to receive a testing contract in New Jersey, its prize there looks to be much smaller than anticipated, as the state plans a scaled-back program with fewer testing centers and less-expensive equipment.

The company is well equipped for what could be a bare-knuckles battle in Colorado. "They've hired every top-gun lobbyist in the state," says Senator Tom Blickensderfer of Englewood, vice-chairman of the senate appropriations committee, through which any bill to repeal the testing program must pass. Besides the well-connected lobbying firms of Wallace Stealey and Frank "Pancho" Hays, Envirotest has the political heavy hitters at Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland minding its business at the Capitol.

Davenport's firm has earned a reputation for string-pulling wherever it applies for work. In Connecticut, Jesse Jackson touted the company as it pursued a contract with the state, pointing out that the company was organized by Davenport, who is black, and noting the presence of four minorities, including one woman, on its eight-member board of directors. Also singing the firm's praises was Washington attorney and former Urban League president Vernon Jordan, a Bill Clinton confidant whose law firm serves as Envirotest's general counsel.

The company has played the race card in Colorado as well. Its bid proposal repeatedly mentioned the firm's board membership and played up its commitment to using businesses owned by minorities and women. At the head of its roster of subcontracted minority companies was the public-relations firm of Burks Romero & Esposito. Envirotest's proposal made much of Burks' "proven competence, expertise and excellent reputation" and noted that if it received the state contract, it would pay the Denver firm $1.35 million for PR duties. According to the proposal, part of that money would fund Burks' efforts to line up still more minority business partners for Envirotest. But before the first car had rolled through an Envirotest smog stall, the company had parted ways with the minority-led firm. Envirotest spokesman Joe McKeon says his company normally shifts team members "between the start-up phase and the operational phase of a program."

The Envirotest proposal also trumpeted the company's financial strength, citing millions in cash assets and a line of credit from ING Capital, a Dutch financial concern. In 1994 the company had total revenues of $96 million and held contracts for ten of the sixteen centralized testing programs implemented in the U.S.

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