Detroit says towing contracts weren’t properly granted
In the latest twist involving Detroit’s towing operations, the city has canceled the permits of 21 companies that tow vehicles for the police department.
The city’s Law Department insists the Board of Police Commissioners acted outside its purview last year by awarding permits to the tow companies. Police Commissioner Willie Bell said the city’s opinion is “misguided” and vowed to fight it.
The contention comes amid at least one FBI investigation into the city’s towing practices, in which Detroit police officers have been suspended for allegedly taking bribes from a towing company. The police department’s legal adviser resigned after officials learned she also was under federal investigation in connection with the towing operations.
“The city has an obligation to ensure that proper contracting procedures for towing and all other services are followed,” Detroit corporation counsel Melvin “Butch” Hollowell told The Detroit News in a statement Thursday. “We have therefore canceled all towing contracts and are rebidding them.”
An Aug. 9 letter from deputy corporation counsel Charles Raimi to Police Chief James Craig claims, “the Board did not have legal authority to approve the selection of any tow companies, nor did the Board, or any representative of the Board, have any authority to issue Permits to such companies.”
Craig is on vacation and could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Bell, who was chairman of the board when the tow companies were issued permits last year, said the city’s letter was based on an erroneous legal opinion.
“We don’t agree with the letter,” Bell said. “We were surprised by it. That’s the opinion of the corporation counsel, and we think it’s wrong. We feel we were within our authority under the city charter. Our attorney is addressing this issue and will take it up when it’s appropriate.”
The letter claims all towing permits are null and void, but suggested the police department could continue using “some of the tow companies listed on exhibit A” until the proper process could be ironed out.
The attached exhibit includes Boulevard and Trumbull Towing, which was banned from doing business with the city in June, after the company’s former owner, Gasper Fiore, was accused by federal officials of participating in a Macomb County bribery conspiracy involving garbage hauler Rizzo Environmental Services.
Boulevard and Trumbull filed a lawsuit last month in Wayne Circuit Court seeking to have its permit reinstated. The suit claimed Fiore no longer owns the company, and that the board violated its own rules by failing to provide an explanation for the suspension or an opportunity for the company to appeal the decision.
Hollowell said Thursday that Boulevard and Trumbull’s ban would continue.
Boulevard and Trumbull issued a written release: “Due to pending litigation with the City of Detroit, we can’t comment at this time. However, we hope the actions ... do not unfairly target a group of small businesses that has reliably served Detroit for many years.”
University of Detroit-Mercy law professor Lawrence Dubin said individuals likely would not have legal standing to get their money back if their vehicles were towed by companies that were improperly given permits.
“It would seem to me that if the car, say, was improperly parked, it wouldn’t matter whether the towing company was found in retrospect to have been wrongly given a permit,” Dubin said. “At the time, there was a de facto legitimacy to the company, and it doesn’t negate the fact that the vehicle needed to be towed.”
The latest issue follows years of contentiousness surrounding the city’s towing operations.
Federal investigators probing Fiore also are looking into alleged crimes involving him and multiple Detroit police officers, according to three police sources familiar with the investigation.
The officers were recorded on wiretaps discussing unspecified illegal activity connected to Fiore’s tow operations, the sources told The Detroit News. Detroit police and FBI officials declined to comment.
It’s unclear whether the investigation into Fiore and Detroit police officers is connected to an FBI probe in which six DPD cops were suspended last year.
In that case, a police source familiar with the investigation told The News the suspended officers were accused of taking bribes from an undisclosed tow company owner in exchange for funneling work, including towing stolen cars, to the firm.
The source said the scam also involved two Wayne County collision shops that allegedly stripped stolen vehicles and collected thousands of dollars from insurance companies for unnecessary repairs.
In June, Detroit Police civilian Deputy Chief Celia Washington, former attorney for the police board, resigned after police officials learned she was being investigated by the FBI in connection with the towing probe.