Missouri Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, presides over a special session in the Missouri Senate on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, as lawmakers gather and prepare for votes during the session later this week. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — In a move that could entangle Missouri’s lieutenant governor, federal investigators have started probing a controversial ambulance purchase deal in mid-Missouri.

Cole County Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher told the Post-Dispatch he spoke with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on July 9 about the commission’s decision to forgo buying ambulances from a company connected to Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe.

“I will say that I can confirm that I was contacted by the FBI related to an ongoing investigation by them,” said Hoelscher, the eastern district commissioner. “I am assured that I am not the subject or target of the investigation.”

Western District Commissioner Kris Scheperle also said the FBI contacted him last week.

“They said that we were not the target of the investigation,” he said.

Kehoe said he has not been interviewed by the FBI, but signaled he welcomes the inquiry.

“There are a lot of good people in the Cole County Courthouse and the citizens of Cole County deserve a government that is worthy of the people they represent,” Kehoe said in a statement. “I have heard from many members of (the) community about concerns in the Courthouse, and I am hopeful someone is trying to sort through those issues.”

The full scope of the probe is unclear.

“We neither confirm or deny the existence of an investigation,” said Bridget Patton, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Kansas City office.

Word of an investigation comes two months after the Post-Dispatch first reported that Kehoe is backing challengers to Hoelscher and Scheperle in their bids for another term in the Aug. 4 Republican primary election.

The two commissioners voted to replace the county’s ambulances with those from a Canadian company, rather than buy vehicles sold by Osage Ambulances, located in nearby Linn.

“They said that Cole County — that we, I mean the Cole County Commission, was not the target of the investigation,” Scheperle said.

He said the FBI contacted him for “informational purposes only.”

“Once you start talking to individuals that — you know, you never know where somebody’s gonna leak that information,” Scheperle said. “They were just kind of giving us a heads-up.”

Kehoe’s brother, John Kehoe, is the majority owner of Osage Ambulances. John Kehoe did not respond to a request for comment.

The lieutenant governor, a Republican appointed to the post by Gov. Mike Parson, owned the company until 1992.

Until 2018, the county had purchased Osage-made ambulances for the prior decade.

In December 2018, and again in May 2019, the three-member county commission agreed to purchase a total of four ambulances from Demers, a Canadian company. The presiding commissioner, Sam Bushman, abstained from the December vote and cast a “no” vote on the May decision.

The commission, with Bushman again providing the lone “no” vote, split 2-1 in December when the majority approved the purchase of three more ambulances from Demers, the Jefferson City News Tribune reported.

Officials said the move saved the county roughly $119,000, allowing the county to spend the savings on new ventilators for ambulances as well as new IV pumps.

Kehoe told the Post-Dispatch in May that he thought the purchasing process was unfair, saying Osage hasn’t been given the opportunity to bid for the county’s business since the December 2018 purchases.

“I think they should bid everything,” Kehoe said in an interview. “And if people in Missouri that produce that product don’t get it, then they don’t get it. At least they gave it a shot.”

Kehoe last year got behind the candidacy of two challengers to Hoelscher and Scheperle, contributing money to the two and lending his clout as a longtime Jefferson City businessman, a state senator and, now, a statewide official.

Both of the Kehoe-backed challengers told the Post-Dispatch that the ambulance issue was a concern.

But they said the lieutenant governor did not ask them to address the ambulance purchases as a condition of his financial support.

Hoelscher confirmed he was questioned about the ambulance deal that had rankled Kehoe.

“I’m not going to say a lot right now. There’s some investigations going on. We’ve been talked to,” he said.

Kehoe also is facing an election on Aug. 4 as he tries to win a full, four-year term in office after taking over as lieutenant governor when Parson vacated the seat in the aftermath of former Gov. Eric Greitens’ abbreviated tenure.

Republican challengers are Arnie “AC” Dienoff of O’Fallon, Aaron Wisdom of Williamsburg and Mike Carter of St. Charles.

Democrats seeking the post are Gregory Upchurch of St. Charles and Alissia Canady of Kansas City. Bill Slantz of St. Charles is running as a Libertarian, and Kelley Dragoo of Kansas City is the lone Green Party candidate.

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