- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2001

New laws to regulate the District's towing industry will be drafted by next month, city officials say, after months of delays and reports of corrupt tow-truck drivers working with Metropolitan Police officers.
The laws have been prompted by the D.C. Inspector General's Office, which uncovered a scheme in which police officers and towing companies collaborated to illegally confiscate cars and charge victims exorbitant storage fees. The Washington Times first reported the inspector general's findings in August.
The new laws would require tow-truck operators to be licensed and would cap towing fees, said Tony Bullock, spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
Less than two weeks ago, D.C. Council members accused the Williams administration of dragging its feet on the problem.
"The council is doing what the council should do, which is demand some progress on this matter," Mr. Bullock said yesterday. "And we are working very hard to put a new law into place that will give the District the right to regulate this industry."
Mr. Bullock said a multiagency task force under the direction of the City Administrator's Office should have a set of regulations for the council's review by next month. He attributed long delays to complicated questions of jurisdiction and coordination among city agencies.
"It's not as simple as it sounds," Mr. Bullock said. "What caused most of the delay is the issue of underlying legislative authority."
He said lawyers in the city's Office of Corporation Counsel also are researching whether the mayor has the right to regulate the industry.
D.C. Council members said constituents have complained for at least a decade about stolen cars being recovered and towed to private impound lots without the owners of the vehicles being notified. The owners then accrued huge bills as the cars languished on lots for weeks and often months.
Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said in August that an internal investigation into charges police were complicit in the towing scheme was under way. A police spokesman yesterday said he could not comment on the status of that investigation.
The inspector general's report criticized the police department on its procedures for tracking and documenting recovered stolen vehicles, as well as the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs for not regulating and inspecting towing companies adequately.
Investigators found that some police officers and civilian employees used their positions of authority to further towing companies in which they had a financial stake. One civilian employee towed cars to a police building during his shift and then used his private tow truck to impound the vehicles after work.
In another variation of the scheme, some officers at accident scenes or who recover stolen cars directly call tow trucks instead of waiting for dispatchers to send a contractor's tow truck, investigators found.
As a result, no record of the tow is kept and the company can keep the car to rack up storage fees. The report did not specify how many officers were involved, nor did it mention whether the officers receive kickbacks from the companies they help.
Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, said the problem has gone on long enough, adding that she hopes the administration follows through on its reforms.
"I think it's taken longer than it should have, but I'm hopeful that we will have better regulations so that we will have protection for our citizens," said Mrs. Schwartz, chairwoman of the public works committee, which oversees the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Mrs. Schwartz said she praised the mayor's initiative when he assigned a work group to investigate the problem more than a year ago. But she said the administration has taken too long to make the needed changes.
"Here we are nearly 14 months later and still no resolution," she said.
Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, called the reforms "good news" but also said they are a long time coming.
"I think some slow progress is being made," said Mrs. Patterson, chairwoman of the judiciary committee, which oversees the police department. "Getting the regulations in place is the first step."
Mr. Bullock said he couldn't address specifics about the new regulations but said steps were taken to "make sure there's no improper conduct on the part of any employee, whether they work for the police department or any other department."

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