OGDEN — A federal fleet manager has been charged with theft for allegedly rigging the auction of a Forest Service pickup purchased by his girlfriend and then using a government credit card to pay for fixing up the truck.
His attorney says he was just doing his job, to sell surplus vehicles.
Robert Joseph Alexander faces a count of theft or embezzlement of government property and a count of theft or embezzlement of government money related to the transaction Dec. 12, 2017, in which his girlfriend, Jennifer Jean Nielsen, paid $6,900 for a 2012 Dodge Ram.
Nielsen, whom federal agents said lives with Alexander in North Ogden, faces identical charges.
In an affidavit filed April 25 in support of a search warrant, U.S. Department of Agriculture Special Agent Kevin Watts said Alexander arranged for a two-day auction of the truck, while most vehicle auctions last seven days.
Alexander was assistant fleet manager with the Forest Service’s Region 4 office in Ogden.
On the General Services Administration auction website, the description and photos did not match the actual pickup, Watts said. The truck was listed as having frame, engine and motor damage and the photos depicted a severely damaged Dodge Ram.
Before the auction, the truck was stored at a GSA leased warehouse on Wall Avenue in Ogden. A Forest Service manager responsible for the warehouse reported the suspicious auction to Watts on Feb. 26 this year.
That manager told Watts he knew the description was inaccurate because the Ram at the storage site “was in visibly good condition.”
The manager said Alexander told him he had provided false information to GSA auctioneers in Colorado “to discourage other potential buyers from bidding on it.”
Nielsen submitted the highest of six bids. A receipt emailed to her described the truck as “an inoperable tow-away.”
According to vehicle price checks on Kelly Blue Book, a 2012 Ram 2500 with 80,000 miles could be worth $20,000-$35,000.
During their investigation, agents conducted surveillance on Alexander’s home to verify the truck was in his possession. Agents also dug through the couple’s trash looking for evidence and later searched Alexander’s office in the James V. Hansen Federal Building on 25th Street and seized computers.
The auction was closed Dec. 9 and Nielsen paid the GSA for the truck Dec. 12, according to the affidavit.
On Dec. 11, Alexander took the truck to a Riverdale dealership and had repairs and maintenance done. The shop removed a spotlight, repaired a ticking noise in the exhaust manifold, replaced the brakes, resurfaced the brake rotors, did a fuel injection flush, performed a tuneup, changed the spark plugs and transmission fluid and flushed the cooling system, the affidavit said.
Alexander paid the $1,610 bill with a GSA-issued fuel card, agents said.
The affidavit said Alexander also had asked the GSA auction office in Colorado for two blank government forms that coud be used to transfer ownership of surplus vehicles to be registered in the state in Utah.
According to Watts, Alexander had mentioned to the warehouse supervisor he needed the forms to return to service two other other Forest Service vehicles stored in the Wall warehouse, a Chevrolet Silverado and a Jeep Liberty.
The agent wrote that Alexander’s boss told him the ownership transfer forms were not necessary to put vehicles back into service.
Alexander had stored his boat in the warehouse and after an earlier investigation he was told to remove it, Watts said. In the current investigation, a Forest Service employee told agents he had seen the boat parked outside the warehouse and hooked to a Forest Service truck.
Alexander and Nielsen were named in a grand jury indictment May 30.
At a hearing in U.S. District Court June 25, Alexander and Nielsen pleaded not guilty and were freed on their own recognizance. Convictions on the charges could draw penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
A jury trial is scheduled for Sept. 4, but Alexander’s attorney, Chad McKay of Ogden, said Tuesday he is negotiating a resolution with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“It boils down to an employee or his relative purchased the vehicle, but it was offered to the general public, and he happened to be the high bidder,” McKay said.
“Robert’s job was to list vehicles for sale,” McKay said. “The law prohibits family members and employees from bidding on vehicles, but it gives an exception for public auctions, which it was. Six people bid on it. He just bought it.”
During the investigation this spring, “They took his truck and kept the money,” McKay said.
He said surplus inventory auction participants are warned not to go by vehicle descriptions and photos.
McKay said Alexander no longer works for the government.