- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2002

The District does not require tow-truck drivers working with police to be certified because the city doesn't want to burden them with the regulations, officials say.
Municipalities across the country require tow-truck drivers working for police departments to be certified through a federally funded program to instill public trust.
The Washington Times first reported on problems in the D.C. towing industry in August, after the D.C. Inspector General's Office exposed a scheme in which police officers and towing companies collaborate to illegally confiscate cars and charge victims excessive storage fees.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams has vowed to clean up the industry, and last month he was given legal authority by the D.C. Council to draft new towing regulations that "will address problems outlined both in the inspector general's report, as well as elsewhere in the news," according to Erik S. Gaull, the city administrator's director of operational improvements.
The tow-truck driver-certification program was set up in 1995 by the Towing and Recovery Association of America (TRAA), which received a $160,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration to implement the program nationwide. More than 8,000 drivers have been certified, according to TRAA Executive Director Harriet S. Cooley.
In September, when Mrs. Cooley approached D.C. officials with the idea of setting up a city-run certification board, she was told by Mr. Gaull that it's not the place of the D.C. government to mandate the certification of tow-truck drivers.
"We looked into it and felt it was too much of a reach for us to require tow companies to become certified by a body outside of the D.C. government," Mr. Gaull said yesterday. "Their towing-training package is not going to take somebody who's inherently a crook and turn them into an above-the-board player."
Wayne Martineau, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Statewide Towing Association, agrees that "a crook is a crook" but adds that if the D.C. government "puts a requirement on certification, it would help to professionalize the whole industry."
"It does clean up [towing]," Mr. Martineau said. "Certification drives professionalism, and it protects the municipality from being held liable."
In addition to Massachusetts, county and state governments across the country, including in New Jersey, Texas, Georgia and Virginia, during the past seven years began requiring tow-truck drivers to pay $125 to become certified through TRAA, according to Mrs. Cooley.
With the exception of one driver who was certified in 1999, none of the 185 towing companies working in the District has had its drivers certified. The one that was certified apparently worked for a company that has since gone out of business, Mrs. Cooley said.
Additionally, TRAA recognizes the membership of state towing associations in all 50 states, but there is no such association in the District.
"Towing associations are organizations with a standard mission and code of ethics," Mrs. Cooley said. "For all intents and purposes, they have no towing association in Washington."
Mr. Gaull said Mr. Williams is working to get new regulations in place, and city officials don't want to complicate the process by requiring tow-truck drivers to get certified.
"We feel that if we try to do this all at once, we'll never get the new regulations through," he said, adding that some fear requiring certification may hurt competition among towing companies.
"I don't want to take on the D.C. government, and I don't want to get into a fight with them," said Mrs. Cooley. "I will respectfully do what they want me to do, which is to lay off for now."
Meanwhile, two reputed victims of a D.C. towing scam filed last month a class-action lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police Department and seven licensed towing companies. The two men, Robert Snowder and Jeffrey Schroeder, seek to recover impound and towing fees paid by unsuspecting motorists.
Philip Freidman, an attorney representing the men, said he recently has received calls from more than 60 others seeking to join the class-action suit.
One person seeking to join the suit is the Rev. Ulysses S. Rice Jr. of St. Matthew's Cathedral in Northwest, who says his 1971 Volkswagen was towed Dec. 21 out of a private lot off Channing Street in Northeast. The lot is owned by a mechanic Mr. Rice had hired to restore the vehicle.
"The people towing the car grabbed my mechanic and held him while they towed [the car] away," Mr. Rice told The Times yesterday.
After a week passed and he still was not notified of the car's whereabouts, Mr. Rice contacted D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat. Mr. Fenty on Jan. 4 wrote a letter to D.C. Department of Public Works Director Leslie Hotaling inquiring about the vehicle's whereabouts.
Mr. Rice said he then received a notice from Public Works indicating that his car had been towed to the agency's abandoned-car division at 5001 Shepherd Parkway SE and any failure on his part to claim it within 45 days would consitute a waiver of his ownership rights of the vehicle.
"My car had legitimate license plates on it. It was not abandoned," Mr. Rice said yesterday. "I seem to be the victim of a situation where they are confiscating vehicles on private property."


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