Seventeen Baltimore police officers were charged Wednesday — and more than a dozen others suspended — in an extortion scheme in which officers are accused of receiving thousands of dollars in kickbacks for steering accident victims to a towing company that was not authorized to do business with the city.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III helped make the arrests, summoning the officers to the department's training academy under the guise of an equipment inspection. There, he and the special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore field office, Richard A. McFeely, lined them up and took their badges.
"I'm here to reclaim our badge," Bealefeld said he told them.
In a 41-page criminal complaint and afternoon news conference, federal authorities outlined a broad scheme in which the officers are accused of conspiring for two years with brothers Hernan Alexis Moreno Mejia and Edwin Javier Mejia, owners of Majestic Auto Repair Shop in Rosedale.
In all, more than 30 officers are accused of being involved in one of the department's largest scandals in recent memory. The arrests and suspensions will also effectively take a large number of officers off the streets at a time when the department is struggling to replenish its ranks after a rash of departures.
At least 14 officers who were not charged have been implicated in the investigation and will have suspension hearings Thursday afternoon, police said. The officers charged in the case could receive prison sentences of up to 20 years and up to $250,000 fines if convicted.
"I expect all City employees to serve the public with the highest level of integrity, and I will not tolerate criminal or unethical activity by any city employee," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in a statement.
After a community meeting at Patterson High School in Southeast Baltimore, she told a group of reporters that she was "certainly disappointed" by the charges but was "gratified" that the such practices would not be tolerated.
A network of 13 towing companies, referred to as the "medallion towers," have contracts with the city, some for as long as three decades, to haul away cars involved in accidents or illegally parked on public right-of-ways. Majestic is not one of those companies.
Authorities allege that the officers involved, upon being dispatched to an accident, would contact one of the Majestic tow company owners by cell phone rather than allow drivers to use a company of their choice or calling one of the city's authorized companies.
If the Majestic owner wanted the car, the officer would then tell the driver that he knew a tow operator who could help save him money, provide a rental car and waive the insurance deductible. The complaint says the officer would persuade car owners to "not call their insurance company until after speaking" with the tow company.
The complaint alleges that the officer would then either falsify a police report, noting that the owner had requested his own tow company, or leave that box unchecked. For each car delivered, the court documents say, an officer received $300. One officer pocketed more than $14,000 over two years, according to Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland.
"Police officers are supposed to work for the Police Department, not the highest bidder," Rosenstein said.
The Baltimore case began with an internal investigation, which was handed off to the FBI, officials said.
Bealefeld told reporters at a news conference at the Maryland U.S. attorney's office that he thought for months about how he would explain the arrests to the residents of Baltimore. He said he wanted the arrests done in a "very deliberate way" that was "meaningful and respectful," but that also sent a stern message to the 3,000-member department.
Some have said they had long suspected and voiced concerns about towing companies not playing by the rules.
Paula Protani, who heads an association of the 13 medallion towing companies, said she had lodged numerous complaints about Majestic over the past three years — and at one point was arrested after confronting an officer at a crash scene, spending eight hours in Central Booking before being released without charges.
Protani provided to The Baltimore Sun a copy of the police report, which lists an arresting officer not named in the criminal complaint. Police said they were looking into the claim.
The medallion tow companies have contracts with the city that, in many cases, stretch back for decades. The companies pay a small annual licensing fee — Protani said it was around $500 — and have exclusive rights to tow cars that have been in accidents or are illegally parked in the city. The companies charge $130 to tow vehicles east of Charles Street and $140 to tow on the west side. The city does not receive a portion of the fee for the tows but collects money through tickets and storage fees.