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“We’re ready to go.”
So declared a confident Robert L. Jones, president of the Springfield Towing Alliance (STA), back in April of 2007 in a Republican story that came out just days before the STA was to begin operations as the City of Springfield’s latest contractor for towing services.
Then-Mayor Charles V. Ryan was equally optimistic, with the same Republican article quoting him as saying he thought the STA was going to do “a bang-up job.”
Fourteen months later, to say that things have not exactly gone as originally envisioned would perhaps be an understatement. Practically since the very beginning of their service to the city, the STA has been the recipient of a series of letters and notifications from the City Law Department, the Springfield Police Department and disgruntled residents alike.
815 State Street,
of CF, Inc.
When the Towing Alliance presented its qualifications to the city during a bidding process that began back in 2006, the company – actually an umbrella organization comprised of, originally, nine associated subcontracting towing companies – promised the world to the residents of Springfield. What the city actually received in the 14-plus months that followed their May 1, 2007, start can perhaps be more accurately described as getting mooned.
In the Towing Alliance’s technical proposal for bid #41 (the city towing contract), they said they would have daily communication between the STA Field Manager and the Police Department’s designated “Project Manager” to go over any issues or concerns (pgs. 11 and 17). Yet just a couple of months into the contract’s term, the City had to send out letters addressing such matters as vehicle registrations, employee CORI/SORB reviews, and payments being remitted without corresponding tow numbers.
On payments to subcontractors and the City, the STA said that subcontractors would be paid via electronic funds transfer, and that the STA manager would provide the City’s Project Manager with a “recapitulation” report. That report would include the following: SPD tow number; amount of tow; amount of storage; amount of administrative fee; sale or salvage retained; amount paid to City (pg. 20). Yet, at least in the beginning, subcontractors reportedly had issues getting paid, and at least one subcontractor received payment via lump-sum, non-itemized paper checks. Meanwhile, both the City Law Department and the SPD sent out notices addressing missing tow slips and late payments to the City.
The Springfield Towing Alliance also offered the following:
- Direct online communication between the Police Department and the STA dispatch system.
- GPS implementation, ensuring both the SPD and STA could monitor tow vehicle progress.
- Scanned copies of letters to vehicle owners, as well as tow orders submitted to the SPD.
Nearly a year after the STA began towing for the city, a draft audit report drawn up by the City Auditor’s internal audit division in March of 2008 referenced a long list of issues. They included:
- Fees owed to the City for tow jobs (estimated at 1,429 tows coming to $71,093)
- Late payments to the City.
- Insufficient documentation on the disposal of salvaged or auctioned vehicles.
- No online communications or remote access to towing data.
- Unpaid utility expenditures (estimated at $10,285.49).
- Incomplete or improper form filings.
- Failure to submit CORI/SORB reviews for its employees.
- Not all vehicle equipped with GPS “functionality.”
- Failed to identify the bank account it uses to deposit City funds.
That draft audit report was followed two months later by a contract compliance review undertaken by the Springfield Police Department on May 28. Like the draft audit report, the compliance report, which was released on July 16, 2008, found several issues where the STA “appears to be out of compliance.” Those issues included:
- Not all vehicles were equipped with GPS devices.
- No documentation on individual drivers, including CORI/SORB reviews.
- Incomplete form filings.
- Out of compliance with 600-vehicle storage requirement. (The STA maintained that they had a waiver on the 600-car requirement, but, according to the police compliant report, were unable to present any documentation on such a waiver.)
- Failing to post towing and storage rates at the storage facility.
- Violations of the 36-hour rule on notifying owners of vehicles stored at the storage facility.
- Failure to notify the Police Department regarding unclaimed vehicles. (According to the compliance report, the SPD has not received any reports from the STA on vehicles being abandoned in the storage lot.)
Yet, perhaps not-so surprisingly, not only does the STA remain in denial of any serious wrong-doing or failures, but their attorney, Mickey E. Harris, has asserted that the City of Springfield owes them money.
In May of this year, CJ’s Towing owner Craig Morel mailed out binders filled with incriminating information on the STA to city councilors and local media outlets. STA operations manager Robert McCollum decried the information as being nothing more than “sour grapes” and a “poison pen” effort by CJ’s Towing to win back a contract they lost to the STA in last year’s bidding war. But the actual information contained inside them was far more than mere sour grapes. Letters from the Law Department, notifications from the Springfield Police Department, and letters of complaint from residents in distress make up much of the material.
Some of the City-submitted letters and notifications included:
- A July 24, 2007, letter to Robert Jones from City Law Department associate city solicitor Alesia H. Days referenced “several matters” that had been discussed in a July 3, 2007, meeting. Among the issues were apparent delays in receiving CORI/SORB reviews of STA staff, missing vehicle inspection reports, and a delay in GPS device implementation on STA city towing-assigned vehicles.
- An October 3, 2007, letter from Days concerning the STA’s alleged “unilateral” decision by the STA to charge for the towing of vehicles from the former city contractor’s storage lot (CJ’s Towing) to the city-leased lot on Chandler Street. negotiations were ongoing regarding the transfer of vehicles from one lot to the other, and Days asserted in her letter that the STA could not charge any fee until the matter was decided and mutually agreed upon. The letter also went on to discuss the STA’s apparent practice of charging storage fees to residents whose vehicles had been placed on police ordered holds (as evidence, for example). Some of the fees amounted to thousands of dollars, and Days instructed the STA to stop charging vehicle owners in such circumstances.
- A letter on December 3, 2007, again from Days, complaining about late payments being made to the City of Springfield. In this same letter, Days also brought up the issue of incomplete form filings by the STA going back to June of that year: 153 incomplete forms in June; 332 incomplete forms in July; and 296 incomplete forms in August.
- A December 19, 2007, notification from Springfield Police Department towing contract liaison Sgt. Donald Sicard Sr., concerning three alleged violations of the towing contract. Two violations referenced remitting fees late, while the third concerned the STA apparent failure to submit copies of the final bill for tows released.
- On January 29, 2008, the Springfield Police Department sent a letter to Robert Jones. Issues brought up in this letter included: Still-awaited CORI/SORB reviews (first requested by Attorney Days back in July of 2007); list of currently contracted vehicles; an update on GPS device implementation; an updated list of associated sub-contractors, as “the City believes that the subcontractors listed have changed.” As evidence, the letter said there were towing companies listed on submitted towing slips that did not appear on the city-approved list of Alliance subcontractors. And the letter again brought up the issue previously referenced by Attorney Days regarding the STA’s practice of charging vehicle owners for vehicles placed on police ordered holds.
One of the many issues the City has had with the STA has been the changing list of associated subcontractors who are actually performing the towing services. Correspondence has shown that the City has had trouble keeping track of the current list of companies doing business as a part of the STA.
Two of the more recent associated towing companies that are known to tow for the STA are Chico’s Towing and R & D Towing. Noticeably, both companies filed for corporate status on the very same day, May 12, 2008. According to each of their filings, R& D Towing is addressed at 36 Jardine Street, which is a residential home, while Chico’s Towing is addressed at 61 Chandler Street – which, according to this Republican story – is actually the same city-owned lot that the STA operates out of from 29 Chandler Street.
But if things looked shaky enough from the outside looking in, an even more enlightening view can be glimpsed from what a former subcontractor said he experienced during his company’s brief association with the STA.
Mascaro’s Service Station owner Ron Mascaro told the Intruder that he signed on to the STA with high hopes. But those hopes quickly faded as the STA’s day-to-day, loosely run operations spelled trouble, in Mascaro’s view. And he said that it didn’t take long for him to fall on the outs with Jones after he (Mascaro) began pointing out problems with how things were being done – and how subcontractors were being treated.
“There are proper ways to do things,” Mascaro said. “Bills need to be paid, employees need to be paid.”
Mascaro was particularly upset with the amount per tow he was receiving. He showed the Intruder a Bid Schedule Form with a hand written “$59.25″ scrawled on it – an amount he said Jones had agreed to prior to winning the city contract. But once operations began after May 1, 2007, Mascaro said that amount was significantly lowered.
Also, according to Mascaro, late payments to subcontractors was routine. He said he would often have to go to the storage facility and listen to cries of poverty as he demanded payment for his towing work. What Mascaro finally got, then, were paper checks drawn from the STA’s account at United Bank, photocopies of which he showed the Intruder. All three checks were lump-sum payments of $2,500 each. Two of the checks had memos stating “on account,” while a third stated “sub-contract towing.” Mascaro said he argued that any payments should include information on the actual tow jobs performed by each subcontractor – something similar to what the Police Department was expecting along with its payments (and often not getting).
But for all of Mascaro’s concerns and protests, in the end he was merely buying himself a short stay at the STA.
At 2:00am one early morning in May of 2007, Mascaro received a phone call. It was the Towning Alliance dispatcher with a tow job. Mascaro said the dispatcher was incoherent, and he could barely understand what he was trying to say. He said he told the dispatcher to have someone else call him back with the tow instructions.
But that return call never came in. Instead, Mascaro said he was charged with a “call refusal” – three of which, he said, were understood to be cause for removal from the STA. But he believes Jones and McCollum used that one incident as the excuse they needed to rid themselves of the bothersome Mascaro, once and for all. Mascaro said he was actually told it was “time to cut out the cancer.”
So by the end of May, 2007, Ron Mascaro was back to being on the outside looking in.
But he would not go quietly.
In July of 2007, Mascaro hired an attorney who in turn sent out a letter to the STA asking them for a copy of the Policies and Procedures of the STA so as to ascertain which policy Mascaro had violated. The response came from an STA attorney at Hare, Stamm, and Harris. It read, in part: “I am in receipt of your letter dated July 23rd in which you requested a copy of the ‘Policies and Procedures’ of the STA. That document is not currently available because it is in the process of being compiled.”
Ultimately, Mascaro decided it would be best for both his family and his business to just drop the matter. But the bitterness he feels after his experience with the STA is still clearly evident in the tone of his voice as he tells his story.
A Question of Integrity
Many people looking into the STA’s operations have come to ask themselves same question: How can a company that has been shown to have repeatedly violated its contractual obligations come away time and again apparently unscathed?
The two most common answers have been political favoritism and a local government grown hesitant to criticize the minority community. One city leader referred to the STA as a political “hot potato” because of its minority-owned status.
Robert Jones, who is black, has been doing business in one form or another for many years in Springfield. His story has been chronicled many times, most recently in this Valley Advocate story.
Jones also appears to have danced around the issue of reporting his own history of bankruptcy when bidding on the city towing contract. According to bid requirements, applicants must “state whether the bidder or any of the company’s owners, principals, partners and any other individuals with equity, property, financial and/or ownership interest has filed for bankruptcy in the last ten years.”
But rather than state his own recorded bankruptcies (Chapter 7 in July of 1997, and Chapter 13 in October of 2001), Jones instead endorsed a statement swearing that his current corporation, CF, Inc., had never filed a bankruptcy petition. But that is not what the bid guideline asked for.
Other principals signed their own statements in similar fashion.
So goes the politics of business as usual in the City of Springfield, where few city leaders are questioning the practices of an organization filled with question marks.
“They’re under-performing, not in compliance, and owe us money,” said Springfield City Councilor Timothy Rooke, a leading voice in the call for greater scrutiny in the STA’s operations. “Why isn’t anyone doing something about this?”
On July 12, 2007 – just a few weeks after her father had been dismissed from the Towing Alliance, Melissa Mascaro wrote an impassioned letter to then-Mayor Charles V. Ryan.
“The towing business has been in my family for many years,” she wrote, “and I believe that it takes a skilled professional to handle such an enormous responsibility such as a city contract. In fact, I do not believe Mr. Jones has proved worthy of anything professionally related. The city of Springfield clearly needs a change.
“This situation has not only been unfair but extremely disheartening to my family, particularly my father. I am saddened to say Mr. Jones has proven that sometimes uncanny politics overshadows the hard work and principals set forth by law-abiding citizens who wish to better their community while providing for their family. I can only hope that no serious accident in the city requires experienced and licensed towing operators.
“May God be with them.”
A final audit report on the STA’s operations is reportedly still weeks away from being released.