Chicago has long had rules to punish taxi companies that allow dangerous cabbies to drive their vehicles, but those rules have rarely been enforced.
A Tribune investigation found that in only two cases since 2008 did city regulators try to impose fines on cab companies for hiring repeat offenders. During that time, scores of companies could have been cited.
Companies avoided penalties for handing the keys to drivers such as Rida Lemghari, who had been cited by city regulators at least 46 times in five years and found liable of the charges in 33 cases. Cabs from one industry mogul's business consortium were linked to at least 14 of those guilty cases, including when the city found that Lemghari tried to run motorist Aja Engel off Wacker Drive.
"The companies should be responsible for them," Engel told the Tribune. "One or two tickets is one thing. But when it's 46 and nobody is doing anything, that's crazy."
The Emanuel administration said the law is so weak and narrowly written, it hasn't been worth the effort for it or the previous administration to enforce it. Instead, city officials are focusing on a new ordinance — it's set to go into effect this summer — they say will be easier to enforce and finally hold cab companies accountable for repeat offenders they let behind the wheel.
"One of the reasons why we took on the challenge of rewriting the ordinance is because we needed it to be clear, crisp and easy to enforce," said Rosemary Krimbel, commissioner of the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection department.
But the city's interpretation of current code is debatable and part of a broader question about how much companies should be accountable for what drivers do.
Current law ignored
Some in the cab industry say companies shouldn't be liable for drivers' actions under the current code. There's a shortage of drivers willing to work the long hours needed to make meager pay. And there's no way, for now, to easily check a driver's history of citations.
Drivers are not technically employees, but rather independent contractors whose training and oversight is formally overseen by the city.
Tribune investigations in recent months showed how the city, for years, regularly cut plea deals allowing repeat offenders to stay on the road, something city officials are now curtailing. This is the first look at how the city has also been lax in its policing of the companies using dangerous drivers.
"No owner wants a bad driver in his car. We don't gain anything," said industry lobbyist Baxter Swilley. "The reason why you get those repeat offenders is because (companies) don't know, and they don't have the mechanism or systems to track these drivers."
Systems or not, a 2000 provision requires companies be fined up to $750 for leasing to a driver who has committed an offense with the owner's cab and then commits the same offense again with the same owner's cab.
A 1997 provision requires the city to revoke the medallion of a cab used to violate the repeat-offender provision and certain other rules at least five times in a year. The medallion is an owner's legal right to operate a cab — and typically costs six figures.
Neither provision has been enforced, and just why offers a lesson in how mandatory edicts in city code can lead to little action.
City regulators said they've long lacked the computer systems, personnel or interagency cooperation to track cases in a way to enforce either provision. Even today, much of the research would need to be done by hand to determine if specific cases would trigger what regulators consider the narrow parameters of the ordinance.
They say all the work likely would lead to little payoff. When they occasionally enforced the 2000 provision, they found cases dragged on and city hearing officers imposed small penalties. The most recent case was in 2008.
So regulators focus on other provisions, such as penalizing companies for cabs being dirty, in disrepair or being previously salvaged vehicles. The latter led to a high-profile 2010 sting netting more than $1 million in fines. That included more than $800,000 from some of about 150 companies associated with Symon Garber.
Garber came to Chicago in 2002 and soon rose to the top of the industry. He gave generally modest amounts of money to various state and local political campaigns, including to former Mayor Richard M. Daley's, as well as Rahm Emanuel's 2011 opponent, Gery Chico, while his companies grew to control about a tenth of the city's taxi fleet through maroon cabs under the names Chicago Carriage or Royal 3CCC.
He frequently leased cabs to the oft-cited driver Lemghari, who did not respond to messages requesting an interview. Records obtained from the city show he joined the industry as a driver in 2006, and by 2008 had become a regular at Garber's Bronzeville cab barn. Within two years, he had accumulated 14 citations in Garber cabs in which hearing officers found Lemghari liable — most commonly as part of plea deals for the catchall charge of "discourteous conduct."
One of those 14 incidents occurred when Engel was driving home Dec. 1, 2009, from her job as a bartender and came upon a weaving Royal 3CCC cab about 2:30 a.m. in the Loop, according to her complaint. She and Lemghari exchanged words, which ended with him swearing at her, driving in front of her and slowing.
"When I tried to pass him, he literally tried to ram my car twice, like at an 80-degree angle. He literally went straight at my car," she told the Tribune.
Lemghari was found liable of multiple offenses, and records showed that, by then, he had been found liable of an identical offense in a Garber cab.
But the city didn't initiate any action against Garber.
Violation after violation followed — the worst being a three-month stretch in 2010, when Lemghari was found liable for committing five separate sets of violations prosecuted through the city's Administrative Hearings department, including once speeding 75 mph in a 35 mph zone. All five occurred in the same cab, taxi No. 4158, owned then and now by Garber.
Despite the five-strikes provision, the city did not seek to revoke the medallion for that cab.
Lemghari's cabbie career ended last year, when the city revoked his cab license. That's proof to Garber's representative that the city did its job.
"The fact that (Lemghari) can no longer drive a cab shows that the system did work in some way, although perhaps not as swiftly as it could have," said Garber spokeswoman June Rosner.
But whether Garber could have been cited for anything depends on how one defines a "person."
The $200,000 question
City code requires that Chicago regulators punish any "person" licensed by the city who breaks the 2000 provision. But city officials say "person" really means company. The semantics could carry high financial stakes.
In the case of Garber and Lemghari, Garber supplied cabs to Lemghari through several companies under his control. The city says that, if it would choose to enforce it, each company must be counted separately, and not as one entity under one licensee: Garber. Under that narrow interpretation, and considering other limitations in the code, the Tribune found that none of Garber's companies could individually be cited.
But the city's logic was questioned by one legal expert in statutory interpretation.
Northwestern University law instructor John Ohlendorf reviewed the code and said courts would likely interpret it more broadly to allow for a cab owner to be prosecuted if his or her companies collectively violate the repeat-offender provision. To clarify it further, he said, regulators could have noted in their rules that a "person" really meant a human being who controlled one or more companies.
"It's their call," Ohlendorf said.
If the city interpreted the code that way, the Tribune found that at least seven of the Garber cab incidents appear to qualify under the 2000 repeat-offender provision. But the biggest punishment could have come under the 1997 five-strikes provision. Garber's one cab, No. 4158, was involved in five of those seven incidents. If Garber would have been found liable under both provisions, he could have lost a medallion license for that cab, the price of which averaged more than $200,000 last year on the open market.
Using a limited amount of city data since 2008, the Tribune also found that, even under a narrow interpretation, almost 40 incidents might have qualified for prosecution of cab companies under the 2000 provision. Under a broader interpretation, about 80 might have qualified.
The Emanuel administration said debate over the law is moot: The new law will fix the problem. Starting in July, city officials said, lists will be generated and posted online of cabbies who have had at least two offenses in the past 24 months. If a company leases to someone on that list, and the driver commits another infraction, the company also can be cited. There's no need to tie past offenses, or even the same kind of offense, to the same company.
But after lobbying from the industry, the city amended the new provision to make it optional for regulators to enforce. Officials insist that language is not a big deal, saying they plan to enforce it but now have the flexibility to dedicate scarce resources elsewhere if needed.
As for the five-strikes provision, the one that could revoke a company's pricey medallion for a cab's repeat offenses of the repeat-offender rule, that has been eliminated. Officials insist they can find plenty of ways to revoke a dangerous company's cab license without it, if they so choose.
The industry, including Garber, has supported the new ordinance.
"We applaud Commissioner Krimbel for her comprehensive review of the taxi industry which provided the foundation for the updated ordinance," Rosner said, "bringing Chicago a safer and more efficient taxi system."