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FBI investigating after GPS devices found on vehicles of top aides to Gov. Parson

Gov. Mike Parson (Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Lee/WikiCommons)

A private investigator says he helped install tracking devices on the vehicles of two high-ranking officials in Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s administration at the behest of a man working for a private security firm, spurring an FBI investigation.

For several days in August, two GPS devices monitored the movements of vehicles used by Office of Administration Commissioner Sarah Steelman and Drew Erdmann, the state’s chief operating officer, according to Mike Bland, a licensed private investigator in Missouri.

Bland said he was hired by John Wall of Asymmetric Solutions, a security firm based in Farmington, Mo., to track Steelman and Erdmann. He said Wall wanted the surveillance because his other company, the software firm Redlyst, hadn’t been selected to provide facial recognition services to the state.

As commissioner, Steelman oversees contracting and procurement for state government.

But Bland said he later cut ties with Wall and Asymmetric after growing uncomfortable with the operation and grew to believe Wall hadn’t shared with him the true reasons behind the surveillance.

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“I was basically used, you know, all the way through to basically (put) GPS on cars and wasn’t told at all. So it undermines me,” Bland said in a nearly hour-long interview Friday.

Bland said he has been interviewed by the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the FBI about the tracking. He said a Highway Patrol corporal told him, “there’s way more going on this to this whole thing than you’re aware of.”

Office of Administration spokesman Chris Moreland said Asymmetric and Redlyst have never applied for state contracts, nor has the state solicited any proposals for facial recognition services.

Moreland said both tracking devices were discovered in late August. He said the first device was reported to the Clayton Police Department and Highway Patrol and that a second device was reported “as a result” of the Highway Patrol’s investigation.

“Subsequently, the FBI was notified and began to lead the investigation,” Moreland said in an email. “In order to protect the integrity of the investigation we will not be sharing any more details at this time.”

Asymmetric Solutions describes itself as a “Special Operations company that provides comprehensive, stress-induced training and security solutions for military, law enforcement and civilians with an additional commitment to product research and development.”

In April 2017, then-Gov. Eric Greitens joined the company’s team on a “SWAT Competition.” A post on the company’s Facebook page shows Greitens and others in combat gear carrying long guns in front of a truck that says “Asymmetric Solutions.”

Spokespersons for the Highway Patrol and FBI didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. A request sent to Asymmetric Solutions to speak with Wall wasn’t immediately answered.

The St. Louis TV station KMOV, which first reported on Bland’s allegations, said Wall didn’t return its messages.

Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones didn’t answer specific questions, but provided a statement saying a member of the governor’s staff and a cabinet member were “victims of potential criminal activity that was tied to their roles as public servants.” The statement didn’t identify Steelman and Erdmann by name.

“The harassing behavior was immediately reported to authorities. We are complying fully with the investigation and hope to hold those responsible accountable,” Jones said.

Bland said he was approached by Asymmetric about the job on Aug. 9 — a Sunday — and headed to Jefferson City on Monday. Bland described a plan with Wall to sneak into a parking garage at the Capitol and “do all this James Bond stuff,” which he said he viewed skeptically.

That week, Bland said he received a call from Wall, who said he had seen Steelman get dropped off at the Capitol building. The truck Steelman was in was apparently being driven a member of her family, he said, and they followed it to a golf course outside the city.

Bland said Wall was with Rep. Dottie Bailey, a Eureka Republican, and Bland met them at the golf course and placed the tracking device on the truck. A call to Bailey on Friday went straight to voicemail, which was full.

Bland also planted a device on Erdmann’s vehicle. He said the device was found a few days later because he taped the tracker to the bottom of the vehicle and that it eventually came off.

“Which is a little embarrassing, but it is what it is,” Bland said.

He said law enforcement quickly linked him to the device because it includes a USB port. When plugged into a computer, the device provided information about its manufacturer and identifying number, which allowed investigators to obtain ownership information, he said.

The Highway Patrol first contacted Bland on Aug. 25, he said. At that point, he said he disclosed to investigators the device on Steelman’s vehicle. He said he was then interviewed in October by an FBI agent, along with a Highway Patrol investigator.

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(c) 2020 The Kansas City Star

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