Illegal Operators a Rapidly Growing Problem for Seattle

Posted on December 20, 2007 by LCT Staff - Also by this author - About the author

SEATTLE, WA — Long a problem for the city, illegal Town Cars are becoming more aggressive and dangerous.

In one case, a registered sex offender was caught illegally picking up customers in a licensed Town Car near Colman Dock. At Sea-Tac Airport, a woman was held against her will by a chauffeur pretending to work for the company hired to drive her, apparently to steal business from a competitor, according to state records. Many more are unlicensed or uninsured, putting customers at greater risk if there is a collision, according to city officials and records kept by the state and Port of Seattle.

Illegal Town Cars have been a problem in Seattle and elsewhere for years, but the behavior seems more audacious than in the past, city officials and legitimate businesses say. The problem is prompting some to question whether changes are needed in the law governing limousines and executive sedans.

The sleek sedans are increasingly visible on city streets, especially around downtown hotels, the bus station, and Sea-Tac Airport.

Of the 490 executive sedans licensed in Washington, most are in King County. A growing number of independent drivers jump into the industry to operate as illegal taxicabs. They know that state law regulating limos and executive sedans is much less stringent than city and county ordinances on taxis, making it easier for unqualified or unchecked drivers to break the rules.

Plus, the state Department of Licensing, which regulates the business across the state, doesn't have the resources to crack down on town cars in King County. The port regulates Town Cars that pick up fares at the airport and cruise ship terminals. The city and county, which regulate taxis, have no jurisdiction over Town Cars.

"They're carrying a lot of Seattle residents and visitors to Seattle, and the drivers have absolutely no credentials," said Craig Leisy, manager of the city's consumer affairs unit, which enforces the city's taxi laws.

The Seattle P-I reviewed complaints filed with the Licensing Department during the last two years, in addition to citations issued by the Port of Seattle for violations committed by town car drivers during the last year. Among the findings:

•A registered sex offender was spotted by city taxi inspectors trying to pick up customers at Colman Dock. An inspector recognized the man because he had been denied a King County taxi license a year before, according to city officials.

•About 30% of the 91 town cars cited for violations by the Port of Seattle between January 2006 and September 2007 were not properly licensed to operate at Sea-Tac Airport and about 10% were not licensed with the state.

•A Town Car chauffeur was caught trying to pick up customers in a rental car he had obtained for the day — a practice that city officials and larger limo companies say is becoming increasingly common among unqualified drivers. Further investigation by the port revealed the driver had a suspended license for reckless driving and was uninsured. •For more than a year, a South Seattle company, Checker Limousine, rented out a fleet of limos and towns car with expired licenses while the state worked to shut it down. The owner, Alexander Milman, was fined $20,000 by the state that he never paid. Last month, Milman, 47, was sentenced to five years in federal prison for running a pharmacy that bilked Medicaid of about $1.85 million. The lawyer who represented his town car company in state hearings, Oleg Ordinartsev, was convicted in connection with the Medicaid fraud, imprisoned and disbarred.

•A city study six years ago estimated that at least 20% of for-hire Town Cars in Seattle are uninsured.

For taxis, it's about the loss of business. Last year, complaints poured into the state about Town Cars stealing stand-and-hail fares outside hotels, sometimes triggering physical fights between taxi drivers and town car drivers. State law does not allow executive cars to take stand-and-hail fares.

But Town Car drivers feel that they are being singled out so established companies can get more business.

Ali Baharu, a town car driver who was interviewed as he solicited a passenger from Colman Dock last month, said his initial customer didn't show up, so he decided to offer his service to a random customer. His vehicle was licensed. He said he was unaware that soliciting passengers was illegal, and that it's nothing different from what's been done for years.

"This is nothing new," he said.

Taxi drivers have long accused hotel doormen of taking cuts from Town Car drivers looking to score trips that would normally go to taxis. But it's also become a top issue with the Puget Sound Limousine Association.

"In my opinion, I think it's getting worse. I think they're getting a little bit more aggressive," said Tom Stottler, president of Evergreen Town Car Service and head of the association.

The executive sedan law largely relies on companies to self-regulate. License-holders certify that their drivers meet qualifications and pass criminal history checks. The state, unlike the city's taxi enforcement office, doesn't routinely audit license holders unless there is a complaint.

"We believe there is a large number (of Town Car drivers) who tried to get taxi licenses who aren't qualified because they can't pass the basic tests on English language, geography, or there are some who have criminal histories," said Diana Toledo, the county's taxi enforcement coordinator.

In one of the more outrageous cases, Sue England landed at Sea-Tac in April of 2005 anticipating a private Lincoln Town Car to pick her up. Her son-in-law, who couldn't make it to the airport, booked the shiny sedan, complete with a chauffeur, to take England directly home.

Unaware of tactics used by rogue drivers, she stepped into a sedan with a chauffeur poaching customers from his competitors. By the time she realized it, she was on her way into downtown Seattle, miles from her daughter's home, in an anxious journey with a driver who refused to take her back to the airport.

"I didn't feel threatened, but I was frightened because somebody wasn't doing what I was asking, especially when I knew there had been a mistake," said England, 60, who was visiting from the San Francisco area.

England had called her limousine company's dispatch and walked out onto the sidewalk in front of baggage claim. Within minutes, two black Town Cars pulled up. A driver in slacks sprang from one and asked "Are you Sue?" She followed him into his car.

But as they merged onto the highway, her cell phone rang. It was the limo company, Crown Limousine. The dispatcher wondered where she was. Her real driver was waiting for her at the airport.

She asked her driver to return to the airport, but he refused. England's ride stopped outside a downtown hotel, where the driver demanded $40 to release her luggage. She was saved because Crown Limousine, the company hired by her son-in-law, kept her on the cell phone and sent the driver to find her.

The driver, who ran his own one-vehicle company, was fined $750. He lost his Town Car license after not paying the fine, according to state records.

SOURCE: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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