- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2002

New laws to clean up the city's towing industry are months away from taking effect, despite promises from the mayor's office that the measures would be in place by this month.

Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, said last month that a multiagency task force would have a set of regulations for the D.C. Council to look at by now. But this week he said, "There has been some delay in the promulgation of these new regulations. The task force is working on it."

His boss's reform efforts, according to Mr. Bullock, have been stymied by bureaucratic arguments over whether the mayor has the authority to crack down on the industry. The confusion, city leaders say, stems from a memorandum issued in November by the District's legal department, the Office of Corporation Counsel.

In the memorandum, city lawyers say the mayor can't unilaterally change towing laws.

Mr. Williams vowed to take action last year 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. The Washington Times first reported on the inspector general's findings in August. Two victims of the scheme have since filed a class-action lawsuit against D.C. police and seven licensed towing companies.

The administration's explanation for its lack of action so far didn't carry much weight with some D.C. Council members.

Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, says there is no excuse for not having new regulations in place by now. Blaming legal complications for the delay is nothing but a "smoke screen," she said.

"That has not been the holdup," she said. "The holdup has been that they haven't been able to get their act together to get the new regulations in place."

But Erik S. Gaull, the city administrator's director of operational improvements and co-chairman of the task force putting together the new regulations, says, "That's simply untrue. Our regulations are ready."

They have been drafted and submitted to the Office of Corporation Counsel, which has decided the mayor lacks the authority to regulate towing, Mr. Gaull said. "When we found that out, we wrote legislation to get the authority."

Mr. Gaull provided The Washington Times yesterday with a letter Mr. Williams mailed to the D.C. Council on Dec. 19 requesting the enactment of the "Towing Services Rulemaking Authority Act of 2001."

"Now our hands are tied," Mr. Gaull said. "Until city council grants statutory authority to the mayor, we can't issue the new regulations."

Miss Schwartz, who spearheaded a Dec. 6 public oversight hearing on the progress of the task force, said, "They haven't given us [any regulations] to look at yet."

"They've been working on this since November of 2000," she said. "It's been 15 months. What's taking so long?"

Miss Schwartz said that "there's just something wrong" with the failure of the mayor to follow through on promises to reform the towing industry.

Mr. Bullock said Miss Schwartz can "bemoan" that the new regulations have taken a long time but that that won't change the fact that the Office of Corporation Counsel says the mayor doesn't have authority over the issue.

"The best thing for city council to do to move this process along is to move quickly to approve the legislation that gives the mayor statutory authority over regulating towing," he said. "We want to move on this, too."

In a second interview yesterday evening, Miss Schwartz said she had just received the request to grant the mayor authority over the towing industry. "I'm not in support of granting that," she said.

Other 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 were then hit with huge bills as the cars languished on lots for weeks and often months.

The inspector general's report criticized the Metropolitan Police Department on its procedures for tracking and documenting the vehicles, as well as the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs for not regulating and inspecting towing companies adequately.

Investigators found that police officers and civilian employees used their positions of authority to help 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 called tow trucks directly, instead of waiting for dispatchers to send a contractor's truck, investigators found.

The class-action suit filed Tuesday by Robert Snowder and Jeffrey Schroeder seeks to reclaim money lost by car owners in the schemes. The men's attorney, Philip Friedman, says tow companies and D.C. police have repeatedly violated regulations concerning how a vehicle may be towed and when an owner must be notified that his vehicle has been impounded.

Mr. Bullock said the new regulations will require tow-truck drivers in the District to obtain special licenses and will put a cap on the amount towing operations can charge motorists. "There will be a lot more scrutiny over the towing and impounding of vehicles in the District," he said. "The new regulations also will address policies regarding the notification of vehicle owners."

Mr. Bullock said the task force is also trying to set up a complaint board motorists can call if their car is missing. "Wouldn't that be nice?" he said.

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