Owner of Affordable Towing pleads guilty to violating the federal Clean Air Act. The company is located at 2023 W. Division St. in Springfield. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

The owner of Affordable Towing has pleaded guilty in federal court to tampering with and disabling the emission-control devices on his diesel-powered tow trucks in order to cut costs.

Dennis Cleveland, 73, of Kirbyville, entered his plea March 9 and will be sentenced following a pre-sentencing investigation into his background and history.

Cleveland and his company are known throughout the Ozarks for widespread advertising, including the phrase: “If you’re afoot and you need a tow, be sure it’s Affordable.”

Affordable Towing is known throughout the Ozarks for its advertising. The company has an office and lot in Springfield. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

The company has offices in Springfield, 2023 W. Division St., as well as in Branson, Conway, Joplin and Bolivar.

Cleveland can be sentenced for up to seven years in federal prison without parole.

Another local business owner pleads guilty

According to federal officials, Cleveland conspired with Robert Dyche, 67, of Springfield, owner of Full Flash Tuning, to alter the vehicles in violation of the Clean Air Act.

Dyche pleaded guilty March 13. He also will be sentenced after a pre-sentencing investigation. He faces up to five years in federal prison without parole.

The Springfield Daily Citizen reached out to both for comment but did not hear back by deadline.

By pleading guilty, Cleveland admitted that since 2011 he has directed employees to physically disable emissions control components on several heavy-duty diesel tow trucks, according to federal authorities.

He did so to save money by avoiding maintenance expenses on emissions-control systems and by spending less money on fuel, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri.

Court documents state Cleveland was responsible for disabling emission controls on “approximately 10” vehicles.

More pollutants released into the air

In a video on the Affordable Towing website, Cleveland tells interviewer Tom Trtan of OzarksFirst that Affordable Towing has about 73 trucks on the road.

Cleveland also said in the video his company for 16 consecutive years was rated by the American Towing Association as one of the top 100 tow-truck operators in the nation — based on customer satisfaction and response time.

Neither court documents nor the press release reveal how authorities were alerted to the tampering and disabling.

Federal officials said the illegal actions released more pollutants into the air, including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, non-methane hydrocarbons and particulate matter.

The government stated:

“These pollutants have been shown to cause cancer, as well as lung, neurological, cardiovascular and immune system damage. Diesel exhaust is one of the largest sources of particulate matter and other pollutants.

As a result, federal officials said, “The vehicles released pollutants into the air that far exceeded the legally allowable amounts under the Clean Air Act.”

On-board vehicle diagnostics were altered

Dyche’s company is at 2120 S. Farm Road 199. The press release describes the role Dyche played:

“This tampering is frequently referred to as ‘tuning’ or ‘flashing’ an on-board diagnostic system. One purpose for ‘tuning’ is to allow the vehicles to continue to seemingly operate normally while the emissions-control system is disabled, rather than forcing the vehicle’s engine into a state known as ‘limp mode,’ which greatly limits the maximum speed of the vehicle, incentivizing the driver or owner to repair the malfunction.

“The use of ‘tuning’ thereby serves to reduce the high costs associated with maintaining or repairing components of the emissions-control systems on heavy-duty diesel trucks.”

Court documents include records of Cleveland’s payments to Dyche for the tampering.

In addition, according to the press release, “Dyche, on multiple occasions, would take the vehicles to an unidentified entity in Rogersville, to ‘tune’ the vehicles, for which he was compensated by Affordable Towing.”

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@sgfcitizen.org. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin