- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 5, 2002

While Mayor Anthony A. Williams showed off the Department of Public Works' fleet of shiny new tow trucks yesterday, D.C. Council members were saying residents have waited too long for promised regulations to clean up fraud in the city's private towing industry.
The mayor has vowed on several occasions over the past year that the District would crack down on unscrupulous tow-truck operators preying on the public, but the reforms have not materialized.
"The towing issue has not just gone away," said D.C. Council Member Kathy Patterson. "I get calls and letters and e-mails about it all the time.
"It is a big issue, and I'm sorry the [Williams] administration hasn't moved forward on it," the Ward 3 Democrat said.
In the District, there are no requirements that companies that tow vehicles for D.C. police or the DPW be licensed. There also is no limit on the amount a tow company can charge a motorist whose car has been impounded, even if that motorist is not notified until weeks after the car is towed.
Mr. Williams, a Democrat, promised to act last August after an investigation conducted by the D.C. inspector general found private towing companies had conspired with D.C. police to confiscate vehicles, hide them from their owners and charge the owners exorbitant impound fees.
Since The Washington Times first reported on the inspector general's findings, city officials have repeatedly postponed action and blamed delays on politics, red tape and bureaucratic bumbling.
On Jan. 11, officials in the mayor's office said efforts to regulate towing were being stymied by a bureaucratic argument with the D.C. Council over whether the mayor had the power to crack down on the private industry.
On Jan. 17, the council, at the mayor's request, passed legislation granting him authority.
A month later, the FBI announced that a secret, four-year probe of towing-industry corruption in and around the District resulted in 60 arrests. The same day, Mr. Williams opened for public comment 15 pages of proposed regulations to clean up the industry.
In March, more than 30 towing firms formed an official association to lobby for changes in the proposed regulations. The firms complain the regulations fail to say who is responsible for notifying owners of towed cars and, if implemented, will run private towing into the ground.
On March 20, the period for public comment on the regulations ended. During the weeks that followed, Erik S. Gaull, the mayor's point man for creating the new regulations, quit his post to run for a seat on the D.C. Council.
On Monday, asked by a reporter with The Times when D.C. residents can expect the new regulations to be revised and implemented, Mr. Williams said: "I'm not sure the exact status of it . I'll have to get back to you on that."
The mayor, appearing at a photo opportunity yesterday to showcase the city's fleet of 25 new tow trucks, referred all questions about the impending towing regulations to DPW Director Leslie Hotaling.
"[The regulations] are being revised and should be published and final within the next 30 to 60 days," Mrs. Hotaling said. "There was a lot of public comment on it mainly from the industry."
But Mrs. Patterson last week said it appears the mayor's office and the Department of Public Works are dragging their feet. "I don't know what the holdup is," she said.
"Someone in the [Williams] administration needs to own this problem," she said. "Where you have shared responsibility, you have no responsibility. The Department of Regulatory Affairs, DPW, Metropolitan Police . Pick one and let's see some action."
Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, agreed with Mrs. Patterson. "Obviously, the regulations are just sitting there," she said.
"[The mayors office] wanted the authority to draft the regulations, and they got it. Now what are they doing with it?" asked Mrs. Schwartz, who heads the D.C. Council's Committee on Public Works and the Environment.
One Northeast resident who recently contacted The Times said D.C. police and officials in the mayor's office gave her "the runaround" when she called to report that her 1999 Honda had been stolen from where it was legally parked on 44th Street in Northeast while she attended a funeral at a nearby church.
Three days after reporting it stolen, police informed her that her car had been recovered about a block from where she said she had parked it and had been towed by a private firm to a New York Avenue lot in Northeast.
The resident said that when she went to retrieve the car, there was no noticeable damage to it. "This is the kicker, though: When I went to the funeral [before reporting the car stolen], I filled the tank up with gas. But when I went to get my car back, the tank was still full," the resident said. "If the car was driven, some gas would be gone."
The resident said the towing company charged her $220 for a non-accident towing fee and storage.


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