- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

The FBI announced yesterday that a secret, four-year probe into corruption in the District's towing industry resulted in the arrest of 60 persons.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams says the problems uncovered during the FBI's investigation "Operation Towhook," according to authorities figured largely in new ideas to clean up the towing industry.
In announcing proposed regulations yesterday, Mr. Williams was joined at his weekly news conference by Van A. Harp, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington field office.
Mr. Harp said a multiagency task force made up of federal and local authorities from the District and other area police departments facilitated the investigation that operated out of such disguised locations as a D.C. storefront to identify 26 targets involved in towing conspiracies.
Operation Towhook, a covert mission that began in January 1998 and concluded recently, was unique in that it targeted a "quality of life crime," Mr. Harp said. "Once we got into it, there was substantial corruption on the part of some of these tow-truck drivers."
"Part of the schemes would be for tow-truck drivers to target cars to steal and once they latched onto them, they were actually stealing them and then they would find ways to dispose of them," he said.
The stolen cars were either sold by towing operators to "chop houses," which broke the vehicles down to sell the parts, or were sold or broken down by the towing operators themselves, he added.
During the investigation, the FBI recovered $2 million worth of stolen cars and parts.
Mr. Harp also said federal courts in Maryland, Virginia and the District have ordered more than $850,000 in restitution to victims of towing scams.
The mayor's towing regulations are the first to be proposed since 1965. If passed by the D.C. Council, all towing operators in the District will be required to get a special license.
The regulations also would establish a maximum fee that towing operators who haul cars at the request of D.C. police could charge. For a standard passenger vehicle, including station wagons and sport utility vehicles, the maximum charge would be $150.
Additionally, towing companies would be required to have a city-issued control number prior to towing a vehicle so city officials can track the vehicle until it is returned to the owner, sold at auction or scrapped, Mr. Williams said.
"The thing that really troubles me was people who have their cars stolen and their car is gone for God knows how long and they've got further insult to injury because of bad towing operations and procedures," he said.
In addition to the proposed regulations, Mr. Williams said he is working on developing a "victims compensation fund to do a better job of treating victims whose cars have been stolen."
He vowed to draft the regulations in August after the office of D.C.
Inspector General Charles C. Maddox uncovered a scheme in which police officers and towing companies conspired to illegally confiscate cars and charge victims exorbitant storage fees.
Since The Washington Times first reported on the inspector general's findings in August, two victims of the scheme have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police Department and seven of the city's towing companies.
Phillip Friedman, the lawyer representing victims in the suit, said more than 60 persons have sought to join the suit since it was filed early last month. Many of the victims are owners of cars with out-of-state license plates, which apparently have been targeted by rogue tow-truck drivers and police officers.
Mr. Harp said that of the 60 arrests made during Operation Towhook, 29 ended in convictions. He declined to comment on whether any D.C. police officers were arrested, even though the inspector general's report outlined the direct involvement of police officers in towing scams.
The report did not specify how many officers were involved in the scams, but it noted that some police officers and civilian employees used their positions of authority to further their own private towing companies.
For example, one civilian police employee towed cars to a police building during his shift then used his private tow truck to impound the vehicles after work.
One officer working security at an apartment complex ordered cars towed by a towing company he was associated with. The officer, who later resigned, also was seen driving a private tow truck while in uniform.
The proposed regulations do not address parts of the inspector general's report that detail police involvement in the scams, and officials with the mayor's office did not explain why.
Legal questions about the mayor's authority over the towing industry slowed the drafting of the regulations.
Under the direction of D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, head of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, the council last month voted unanimously to give the mayor first say over the regulations but reserve the right of the council to review them before implementation.
Mrs. Schwartz, at-large Republican, previously told The Times that if the regulations called for "extraordinarily high" standard towing fees, she wanted to have a chance to weigh them.
The mayor's regulations were published on Friday in the D.C. Register and will be available for public comment until March 20.
"They will be revised if necessary and then sent to council," said Erik S. Gaull, the city administrator's director of operational improvements.


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