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St. Louis firm with GOP ties wins third fee-office contract in St. Louis County

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 24, 2010 - A St. Louis County firm that already has snagged two Missouri license "fee" offices, has just snared a third.

The state Department of Revenue announced that Ryker is the new agent for the Creve Coeur fee office, replacing a Springfield nonprofit that had been awarded more than a dozen fee-office contracts.

Danah Lewis of Eureka is the president of Ryker and is the former contract agent of the West County license office under former Gov. Matt Blunt. Ryker Enterprises already has been awarded the Des Peres and Chesterfield license offices.

According to the Department of Revenue, "The winning bid for the Creve Coeur office was one of five submitted. The contract with the state is good for one year, and the state has the right to renew the contract for three additional one-year periods. According to figures from Fiscal Year 2009, an estimated 85,822 transactions were conducted at the office during that year, and $296,552 in contract agent processing fees were generated."

"Ryker Enterprises’ winning bid included a 3 percent ($8,896) annual return to the state," the department added.

The Creve Coeur office is one of 10 fee-office contracts that were rebid after initially awarded last year to Alternative Opportunities Inc., a nonprofit based in Springfield that provides employment assistance to the disabled and teens in foster care.

But the offices were rebid after the state learned that AO had subcontracted operation of the offices to another firm. That violates the state's rules. The nonprofit has said it was unaware of the restriction and has corrected the problem.

AO has continued to operate most of the 10, along with four other offices that were't affected by the controversy. During the rebidding, AO has been re-awarded two contracts (of the 10). Missouri Department of Revenue spokesman Ted Farnen said AO did not bid to keep the Creve Coeur office.

With today's award, seven of the 10 are still pending.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has expanded on the practice begun by Blunt to seek bids for the fee offices. Traditionally, the fee office contracts had gone to allies of the governor and changed hands with each administration.

As the Revenue Department notes, "All local license offices provide services that are overseen by the Department of Revenue, but each office is operated by an independent contractor. Transactions that are conducted at these offices include the issuance and renewal of driver licenses, issuance of titles for motor vehicles, and the issuance and renewal of registration for motor vehicles, boats and outboard motors."

The license offices are called "fee offices" because a small fee is tacked on to each transaction to pay for the office's operations, employees and any profit.

At Nixon's urging, the Legislature acted last year to require the bidding process.

But that hasn't excluded politics from the process. The Missouri Republican Party has accused Nixon of giving preferential treatment to Democratic-leaning bidders in the process, which the Nixon's administration has denied.

Two fee-office agents who garnered their contracts under Blunt have gone to court to keep them. Buddy Hardin of St. Charles lost his court fight. But the legal battle continues over the Deer Creek office in Maplewood, where Mike Becker is challenging the bid process that led to AO recently getting the award.

Farnen said that Becker is continuing to run the Deer Creek office while the court case continues.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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