- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2001

Charges of racial discrimination that dogged the District of Columbia Taxicab Commission chairman in his former post in Newark, N.J., have resurfaced in the District, along with possible irregularities in the testing process for taxi licenses.

An applicant who complained about the wait for a license test date claims commission Chairman Lee E. Williams told him Jan. 9 that the District had enough drivers, saying, "There are already too many foreigners out on the street."

Applicant Joseph Turner of Northwest said, "I thought it was just out of place for him to say that."

Mr. Williams, who is black, has been on the job in the District for six months. Two years after becoming head of the Newark Taxicab Commission in 1990, Mr. Williams faced charges that he purposely levied fines against cab drivers of Haitian and Middle Eastern descent.

Cabdrivers held an eight-day strike in 1992 and called for the ouster of Mr. Williams, among other demands. The incident was diffused when a mayoral committee offered the cabbies concessions on insurance premiums and a swifter mechanism for dealing with complaints.

Mr. Williams told The Washington Times the discrimination claims were made in retaliation for citations he issued for insurance violations. He said he was never charged with any wrongdoing.

But Mr. Turner said the day after Mr. Williams made the remark about foreigners, he and four or five other test applicants spoke with Ron Friday, a representative from the Public Advocate's Office, about being unable to get a test date. Mr. Friday confirmed the visit took place but had no comment on what actions he took.

But Mr. Turner told The Times Mr. Friday interceded on their behalf and suggested that the complaint be pursued with Taxicab Commissioner Sandra Seegars.

In a Feb. 1 letter to the Taxicab Commission, Mr. Turner claimed that when the group returned to the commission's office, an angry Mr. Williams told them, "I was brought here in this position to get people like all of you. You don't need to be on the road as taxicab drivers. There are already too many taxi drivers on the road, and when you get out there I will be watching you."

Three others present all of whom have failed the taxi driver exam substantiate Mr. Turner's story. One applicant, who has since passed the exam, says Mr. Williams didn't give him or the others any trouble when they returned to take the test.

Unlike cities such as New York, the number of taxicab drivers in the District is limited only by the number of licenses issued.

In an interview with The Times, Mr. Williams vehemently denied making either set of statements. He said he would be willing to go "into the box," or take a polygraph test, along with his accusers.

Mr. Turner also charged when he was allowed to take the computer exam for his license, he passed but was given a failing grade by test-givers. Applicants have two hours to answer 50 questions dealing with general knowledge, fare computation and locations in the city. Mr. Turner took the test three times and failed each time.

Before applicants are allowed to take the exam, they are required to complete a course at the University of the District of Columbia, which culminates in a two-part exam. Mr. Turner scored 80 percent on that exam.

Mr. Williams says he has made every attempt to accommodate Mr. Turner's complaints. He said he has allowed Mr. Turner to schedule an appointment and bypass the rigorously enforced first-come, first-served standard under which applicants line up as early as midnight to get one of the eight slots offered twice a day on test days.

Mr. Williams also said he allowed Mrs. Seegars, the D.C. taxicab commissioner, to be in the room when Mr. Turner was tested.

Mrs. Seegars said the score Mr. Turner received while she was present was a 57, a mathematical impossibility in a test that gives two points for every answer.

"We have a problem over here at the hack office with this test, and we need to straighten it out before the test can continue," Mrs. Seegars said.

Neither Mr. Turner nor Mrs. Seegars has been provided with copies of Mr. Turner's test results, which Mr. Williams said are part of an ongoing investigation to determine not only if drivers who received passing grades were failed but also if drivers who may have failed the test were passed.

Another applicant, Ajmed Khan, said Mr. Williams forbade anyone in the office to help him after he filed a complaint. He told The Times that when he completed his first test, the screen read "Congratulations." When he went to the test administrator, he was asked to wait. He waited for 45 minutes long after the other test-takers had gone before being told he had failed the test with a score of 50.

Officials at the Taxicab Commission say their computers haven't had a screen that reads "Congratulations" since 1998.

When Mr. Khan took the test again Tuesday, he said the machine shut off on him on the 49th question. He was presented with a failing grade and a test paper that told him he had completed only 41 questions.

However, that test and others shown to The Times appear to have at least one irregularity all were dated 1996. And while the computer is supposed to automatically end the test session after two hours, or if an applicant gets 16 wrong answers the point at which a passing grade is mathematically impossible at least two test papers that were examined contained 23 wrong answers.

The D.C. Taxicab Commission chairman's post has been an ongoing source of trouble for Mayor Anthony A. Williams. The mayor's first pick for the position, Christopher R. Lynn, withdrew from consideration after reports of his criminal associations and dubious management record.

Mr. Turner is considering a lawsuit.

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