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Police Hide Cars Exit Melt Down*

Police Accused Of Towing Abuses

Owners Defrauded, D.C. Report Says

By Carol D. Leonnig

Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, August 24, 2001; Page A01

District police officers and towing companies have for years concealed towed cars from their owners and then charged them expensive storage fees, the D.C. inspector general's office has found.

Police officers improperly called companies to tow cars -- some of them legally parked or recovered from car thieves -- and then failed to notify owners where their vehicle had been taken, as required, according to the confidential inspector general's report. The arrangement left hundreds of vehicles languishing in towing company lots and cost owners thousands of dollars in avoidable storage bills.

Two police employees had a clear financial stake in the towing businesses, the report said. One officer, who has resigned, arranged for a towing company he was associated with to tow cars, and was spotted, in uniform, driving the company truck. A civilian department employee towed cars from a police building after he got off work, according to the report.

The report was sent to the police department in March, but Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said he can find no record of receiving it. He said he was not aware of it until getting a call from the Washington Times, which first reported the inspector general's findings yesterday.

"It's embarrassing from the department's perspective," Gainer said. "Reports sitting on a shelf don't do anybody any good."

Gainer said that the department opened an investigation some time ago into allegations that officers were getting kickbacks for steering illegitimate business to towing companies but that it had no firm leads until it got a copy of the report this week.

"There had been rumors, innuendos that officers were involved in making money illegally by getting referral fees," Gainer said. "I'm concerned . . . and now we have some specifics to follow up on."

Gainer said the fact that the inspector general's office did not refer any cases to the U.S. attorney, however, suggests that it lacked probable cause to believe a crime had been committed.

But Gainer agreed that people were cheated when their cars were towed and they weren't notified, and he reminded staff of the notification duties last year. The department is negotiating with a contractor to computerize the auto tracking system to make notification more reliable.

The habitual failure of police to tell owners where their cars have been towed, as well as the suspected collusion between police officers and towing companies, has been brought repeatedly to the attention of top department officials. The auto theft squad and rank-and-file officers have warned the police administration for more than a year about dozens of complaints from vehicle owners to the department and to Mayor Anthony A. Williams's office. Last year, at least 10 owners filed formal complaints with the District and were reimbursed for their towing and storage fees.

The report also found that the police department's antiquated way of tracking cars that are towed for being illegally parked or recovered after being stolen has created a pervasive mess. Police staff members write down only partial vehicle identification numbers on paper or sometimes don't record them at all.

Officers routinely call towing companies to tow cars, violating department policy that requires them to call a central dispatcher to keep a record of the tow, the report said.

When questioned by The Washington Post in May 2000 about the towing and storage problems, Gainer said the department would get to the bottom of the matter immediately. "Clearly, we need to do some auditing of this," Gainer said then.

The report and the police department's actions come far too late for Ronald and Sheila Kennedy, a Maryland couple who were without their Dodge Neon for nine months in 1999 and 2000. They forfeited their Neon to their car finance company and bought a new car rather than continue to battle with the city, towing company and finance company over the mounting storage fees.

The Kennedys noticed that their car was missing from their Oxon Hill apartment complex Oct. 16, 1999, and reported it stolen. Though D.C. police found the Dodge on Oct. 27, 1999, records show, and had it towed to a lot, they never told the Kennedys.

The couple's insurance agent alerted them in late November 1999 that a stolen car report showed D.C. police had found their car. After numerous calls from the Kennedys, the department confirmed on Dec. 3, 1999, that Farco Towing had the vehicle. By then, the lot owner wanted $1,353 in storage fees.

"Nothing has happened, in all the time we've been complaining," said Ron Kennedy, who began calling the mayor's office and the police department in the spring of 2000. "This caused us a lot of pain . . . and I don't see that anybody cares."

Numerous car owners who weren't notified for weeks and months after their cars had been towed say that D.C. police officers are at the least sloppy and at the worst corrupt. They are particularly angry with the department's leaders, saying they have not appeared concerned.

David Bocian, a lawyer who wasn't notified for two months that his sport-utility vehicle was in a lot, racking up charges of $1,724, said he "went totally ballistic" when police communications staff told him the officer had failed to record the information in the computer. He called the mayor's office and the D.C. inspector general last year. The city eventually reimbursed most of his costs.

"It was a monumental screw-up," Bocian said.

Blanch Newton, an Anacostia High School computer teacher, said sloppy paperwork is not an acceptable excuse when it involves someone's car. She is one of a handful of owners who persuaded the D.C. corporation counsel's office last year to reimburse them for storage costs when police didn't notify them of their cars' location. She got back $800 after a towing company -- not the police -- called to report it had stored her car for a week. It took her 10 more days to raise enough money from friends to pay the storage fee.

"The more I thought about it, the angrier I got," Newton said. "I know people don't like to do paperwork, but this really hurt me."

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