- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2004

Local officials vowing to end predatory towing practices have help from the National League of Cities, a powerful lobbying group that plans to urge Congress to address the issue that affects localities nationwide.

The NLC recently passed a resolution that urges President Bush and Congress to enact a bill that would give states and localities full authority to regulate the towing industry.

The bill, known as the State and Local Predatory Towing Enforcement Act, was written by U.S. Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat.

The federal government in 1995 eliminated the Interstate Commerce Commission, which provided federal oversight of the towing industry. Localities are allowed to regulate towing prices, but not industry practices.

The resolution states that the legislation would “rein in the rogue, predatory towing companies that can wreak havoc with the business climate throughout a municipality.”

It also noted that the lack of regulatory authority “neither protects the legitimate companies that serve our communities, nor the citizens harmed by abuses such as price gouging.”

Mr. Moran presented his bill in July. Congress will consider it when it reconvenes in January.

The legislation would help people whose cars are towed without their consent by allowing local governments to set rules to curb abuses such as overcharging. If passed, the law would apply to localities nationwide, including the District, where city officials have been working for more than two years to curb towing abuses.

Arlington County Board Vice Chairman Jay Fisette said towing abuses are widespread in areas where parking is limited, such as Arlington and Falls Church.

“Clearly, Arlington is not alone, as many cities find their residents abused by tow companies,” said Mr. Fisette, a Democrat.

The NLC authored the resolution at Mr. Fisette’s request during the group’s annual meeting in Indianapolis earlier this month.

The towing industry opposes the legislation.

“Towing companies that have problems like this are rare and are not representative of towers overall,” the Towing and Recovery Association of America said.

The Alexandria-based association said re-regulating an entire industry “does not solve the problem and actually exacerbates an already convoluted issue without adequate enforcement of existing laws.”

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, is president of NLC, which represents 18,000 cities nationwide.

The District has been plagued with towing problems for years.

A 2001 report by the D.C. inspector general found that private towing companies conspired with police to confiscate vehicles, hide them from their owners and charge exorbitant fees.

The FBI in 2002 concluded a four-year investigation of corruption in the city’s towing industry that resulted in 60 arrests, 29 convictions, and the recovery of $2 million worth of stolen cars and parts.

Winnie Huston, acting administrator of the District Business and Professional Licensing Administration, said those investigations prompted regulations setting a maximum amount on towing charges and requiring drivers to receive a “bill of rights” explaining the process.

The District issues a tracking number to each towed car. If a car is in the tow yard and doesn’t have a number, the city can take action against the company’s business license.

Mr. Fisette said Arlington receives 100 to 200 complaints annually about towing companies that don’t accept credit cards, don’t issue change for cash paid and sometimes leave customers with damaged cars.

Mr. Moran said no cost is associated with the bill.

“Unfortunately, a few bad apples continue to spoil the reputation of an otherwise respectable industry,” Mr. Moran said this summer. “This legislation restores state and local governments’ right and will help empower consumers tired of being harassed and rudely treated by predatory towers.”

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