THE TOWING MAFIA
South Beach Tow Redux
By David Arthur Walters
Miami Beach has long been a retreat favored by notorious gangsters. Its residents are proud of the checkered history, but almost all hate what they call The Towing Mafia; namely, the towing duopoly: Tremont Towing and Beach Towing.
Jennifer Lopez amused quite a few people but she certainly did not win any friends on South Beach with her reality television series, South Beach Tow, featuring the legalized carjacking adventures of the two gangs. Indeed, not only beach residents but tourists alike who have had their cars taken hostage were outraged at the glorification of the organized crime legalized by the city commission.
The once friendly tow gangs, whose former chiefs partnered in other ventures, are at war lately. Meyer Lansky would appreciate how Miami Beach’s illustrious “Jewish mafia” horned into the towing business but he would probably recommend bringing in some muscle from Chicago to get heads together and leverage the local outfit into a national towing syndicate with the help of the Cubans and Italians.
Although purportedly at odds with one another, the dynamic towing duo is presently cooperating in arm-twisting the city commission for a 31% increase in the price-per-tow over three years, to an average tow fee of $269. According to the city manager’s Memorandum, prepared for the city commission meeting held February 8, 2012, Beach Towing has agreed to dismiss three suits against the city that arose from its squabbling with Tremont Towing and the city over the number of spaces that a towing permittee must have available in the city to dock towed vehicles. Furthermore, the companies have magnanimously proposed to increase the city's fee, which they collect for the municipality, from the current $25 per tow, to $30 per tow in year one; $35 in year two; and up to a maximum of $40 in year three. Lest that seem to be a tiny piece of the action in comparison to the lions’ share, City Manager Jorge Gonzalez was moved to note, “It is important to note that for public tows, in addition to the tow fees incurred, a parking citation also accompanies the tow fee: parking citation fines for towable infractions ranges between $23.00 and $250.00.”
The alternative would be to have the city take over the dirty work, but that would apparently line the wrong pockets and offend privateer sensibility, so the commission seems bound to eventually approve of the increase pursuant to the principle that the cost of towing is going up elsewhere at a certain average rate hence Miami Beach, not to be outdone by other municipalities in South Florida, must keep up with the towing price index although the prices themselves are lower in those municipalities.
And the probably favorable resolution will come despite the fact that all hell broke loose at the public hearing. Notwithstanding such occasional outbursts, the dominant political machine remains in place to maintain the status quo since only a small portion of the electorate vote, and they tend to vote in part-time commissioners who are glad to do business as usual and defer to Boss Gonzalez, who has effectually run the city for over a decade. His eye has been on future projects to the neglect of the present, which he leaves to old cronies. To wit: his oversight is weak. At present the city needs a manager who is half Kansas Jayhawk—part prairie hawk and part blue jay, the feisty Jayhawk flies backward because he cares about where he comes from and does not give a damn where he is going.
The tow fees are already outrageous, especially to the likes of the young woman who drove downstate to South Beach for a job interview and had her car towed. She was crying in the CVS parking lot on Alton Road because she had not gotten the job and had only $5 to her name, having spent the last of her unemployment check for a sandwich and gas.
But it is not the fees alone that outrage people: there are hidden fees in the theft of property from the impounded cars. And the police can apparently do nothing about the theft, because it is legal for tow company employees to break into cars and go through whatever is within for identification, and then it is impossible to prove that anything was stolen even though the culprit might be, for example, filmed rifling through a bag or purse and taking things out of it.
It would be redundant to repeat here the many published reports of theft by tow company employees. We add the unpublished report of David Gonzalez, owner of Pepper’s Burrito Grill on Washington Avenue. He parked in the front of Ace Hardware on Alton Road for less than three minutes on his way to make his bank deposit of $2,100. You guessed it: his car was towed and the $2,100 had been stolen. The police could do nothing except write a report. City officials diligently inquired into the matter, but nothing could be done. You see, tow company employees have a virtual license to steal.
Another frequent complaint is the wrongful towing of cars, which I have seen done in front of Dunkin Donuts on Alton Road and beside CVS Pharmacy on Alton Road. Indeed, an employee of the Parking Department had his car towed from the CVS lot while he was shopping inside the store; when I asked him why he did not contest the towing fee, he said it would do no good because the CVS manager had reason to cooperate with the tow company, and would simply say he was not in the store, end of story. I recently observed another customer exit CVS Pharmacy as his car was being hooked up, and shout “No you don’t! No you don’t!” It is a wonder that someone does not blow his stack and shoot the thief.
Offended residents believe that Miami Beach Police Department officers provide protection to the tow companies while they engage in the improper seizure of vehicles and reckless behavior aggravated by drug use.
“The tow truck driver was snorting a white powder up his nose in the parking lot next door,” said a South Beach businessman born and raised in Miami, who did not want to be named in this article.
“We observed this on a few occasions and called the tow company, but they hung up on us. This same criminal element proceeded on several occasions to actually yank cars from our private property; he presumably he got a commission on them from his tow company. Finally I had to catch him in the act and I did. When caught in the act of stealing cars from the parking lot by me and one of my employees, the cranked up tow truck driver became aggressive and had to be restrained in a martial arts hold. The police arrived on the scene, but they were chummy buddies with this guy, and instead of backing up the law and enforcing trespassing et cetera, threatened to arrest us both. The tow truck driver drove away, was not searched for drugs, was not cited for trespassing, and was not arrested for attempted theft.”
He said he met with police brass over the incident. They were suave, he recounted, but did nothing. He said he was apologetically told that the police department is dependent on the tow companies to send out trucks when officers need vehicles removed from the street. He was left embittered not only by that incident but by occasions thereafter, when he said detectives, having no sensibility for his property rights and without first presenting credentials, invaded his premises, presumably searching for criminals, and went so far as to arrest an employee for demanding to know who they were. And he said police officers refused to properly investigate crimes against his property, to dust for prints, for example, until he threatened to call the police chief.
“It became evident over the years that the complacency in this city had gotten so high and the lack of accountability of how police are to interface with truly locally established businesses was nonexistent. Their M.O. is that everyone not on the police force has to be treated like a criminal.”
He attributed the problems with the police department to its personnel policies, particularly to its hiring practices. When I pointed out that significant improvements have been made since the time period of his complaints, and that the police department does a great job in many respects, he said “The top three guys should still be fired, which is the first thing that business leaders do to effect changes in failing companies. The top three people in the city manager’s office should also be fired.”
One might think that city contractors would be required to protect public consumers of goods and services by subjecting candidates for employment to credit checks and criminal background checks and drug screenings, and to regularly perform such checks and screenings on all employees. Ethical businesses certainly perform such checks and screens as a matter of good policy. It is an understatement to say that Miami-Dade County and its municipalities should only do business with ethical businesses.
I questioned Joseph M. Centorino, Executive Director of the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Trust, former chief of the Public Corruption Unit of the Miami-Dade State Attorney Office, on the matter, and discovered that the Miami-Dade County Conflict of Interest and Code of Ethics Ordinance, Section 2-11.1 of the Code of Miami-Dade County, covers not only the county but its municipalities as well, yet it has no specific provision to require government agency contractors to do what any ethical business would do to protect its consumers: require credit and criminal background checks and drug screenings of all prospective and current employees including officers and directors.
Another section of the Miami-Dade County Code, Section 2-8.1, does require the county contractors to adopt an ethical code, but that does not apply to municipalities within the county. Furthermore, the recommended ethical code is a creation of the Chamber of Commerce, yet the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Model Code of Business Ethics requires no checks and screenings, although there is a provision stating: “Our products will comply with all applicable safety and quality standards.” Obviously, the safety and quality of products and services depend on a workplace free of drugs and criminals.
When I pressed Centorino on somehow including background checks and screenings in the Ethics Code that covers not only the county but its municipalities, he said, “If such requirements were to be enacted, they would likely be enacted in a place other than the Code of Ethics ordinance since they are outside the normal scope of activities included in that ordinance. However, there is nothing to prevent them from being put wherever the legislative body deems them appropriate. If they were to be placed in that ordinance, they would come under our purview, and we would enforce them as any other requirement imposed under that ordinance. As to whether there should or should not be such a requirement, that is a legislative matter outside of the purview of our current ethics ordinance and our scope of authority. Regarding the feasibility of extending such requirements to the municipalities, while the Code of Ethics ordinance was enacted specifically to cover all municipal agencies, most other county ordinances that I am aware of do not carry such a broad mandate.”
Where is Napoleon when we need him to promulgate a uniform code to replace the piecemealed patchwork that presently affords so many safe havens for unethical conduct? Yes, a federal or pluralistic system provides diversity needed for the exercise of freedom in one way or another depending on where you choose to be, but should not there be an ethical core to that diversity? Did the Jews in their infinite wisdom have only part of the Decalogue apply in Judah, part in Israel, and part in Babylonia and elsewhere?
To return to the City of Miami Beach, on several occasions I have asked the City Clerk for any documented, citywide policy for city contractors requiring drug screenings and criminal background checks; for example, a “Drug Free Policy.” There is apparently no such blanket policy in place. However, the tow company ordinance proposed to the commission on February 8 did include a provision for drug screenings:
“Employee Drug Screening - Permittee shall perform drug test screening on all employees, and provide pass/fail results to the City Manager or his designee, upon request.”
Beware of any provision in an ordinance that says something should be done “on request of the City Manager or his designee.”
Drug screenings have become a sensitive issue since irregularities in the conduct of background checks and drug screenings of employees of the contractor managing the city’s tennis centers were discovered. One of the principals did disclose a felony bust—he was imprisoned for a major cocaine trafficking offense many years ago. It was alleged that the principals of the firm managed to avoid drug screenings as required by the contract, and that an independent contractor scheme was allegedly put in place for international tennis pros to avoid screenings and other requirements. Moreover, regular financial audits were not performed as required by the contract. Wherefore a drug screening provision for the tennis center operator was included in a proposed resolution at the February 8 meeting. The tennis center contractor shall:
“Provide overall Tennis Center Management in accordance with City directives and policies, including but not limited to… g. Hire, train and supervise appropriate staff to support the Tennis Center operations, including, but not limited to: 1) hiring Tennis instruction professionals that possess appropriate licensing and credentials commensurate with tennis instruction professionals employed at other public tennis facilities. ; 2) using certified background investigations, in a format acceptable to the City), for all employee hires; 3) developing a drug screening process and protocol; 4) developing specific job descriptions for the hiring of personnel; 5) ensuring appropriate levels of staffing at all times at the facility; 6) Designated staff will be required to attend industry standard training on court maintenance as mandated by the City and as required; and 7) ensuring all staff is properly identified (uniforms, etc).”
We see no background investigation requirements in the proposed resolution for the tow company contracts, despite the scandalous allegations of misconduct and allegations that the companies had hired criminals.
I broached the issue of criminal background checks in respect to the towing companies and other government contractors at a recent informal discussion between various journalists and Ethics Commission staff. An attending journalist, who said he had enjoyed the South Beach Tow reality show, objected to employment discrimination based on criminal convictions. I agreed that rejection of everyone with a criminal record would be unfair and inconvenient as well, since I had heard that 30% of Miami-Dade County residents have criminal records. Normally the prohibition on employment would only apply where there were convictions for crimes that if repeated would create a risk related to the type of employment. For example, one might not want to hire a person convicted of bank robbery as a bank guard.
The conversation on that subject ended on a comic note when someone said that the most highly qualified tow truck drivers are car thieves.
March 14, 2012