Baltimore City

Owners of repair shop plead guilty in towing scandal

Two owners of Majestic Auto Repair pleaded guilty Monday in federal court to paying up to $1 million in bribes to more than 50 Baltimore police officers who allegedly steered business to the Rosedale shop and falsified crash reports.

Brothers Hernan Alexis Moreno and Edwin Javier Mejia each face a maximum of 25 years in prison for one conviction each of extortion and conspiracy and fines of up to $500,000 at their U.S. District Court sentencings, which are scheduled for Nov. 18.

They are likely to receive terms of between six to nine years, however, according to their plea agreements, which allow the defendants to appeal sentences longer than 108 months and prosecutors to appeal terms shorter than 71 months.

Both men have agreed to cooperate with the Maryland U.S. attorney's office in the case, which could lead to lighter sentences for them and more charges for others.

So far, 17 city officers have been arrested in the scandal and suspended from the police force without pay, while 14 others were put on desk duty during the investigation. But the Majestic brothers admitted in court Monday that more than 50 Baltimore officers were involved in the three-year-long scheme, which is now the focus of one of the widest police corruption probes in recent years.

Four Baltimore police officers have pleaded guilty in connection with the scam and are facing potential 20-year prison terms at their future sentencings, while a fifth is expected to plead guilty this week.

Police who respond to car accidents or disabled vehicles are supposed to call a city-approved towing company or allow owners to make private arrangements. But officers implicated in the alleged extortion scheme are charged with steering motorists to Majestic, which is not among the city's certified tow companies, in exchange for kickbacks of $200 to $300.

The car owners were told that the arrangement would allow them to skip the towing fee and to avoid paying their insurance deductible if Majestic repaired the vehicle, while the company benefited from the boost in business.

According to their plea agreements, Moreno and Mejia first colluded with Baltimore officer Jhonn S. Corona in 2008, agreeing that the officer would refer accident vehicles to the brothers for a fee. The brothers also accused Corona, who pleaded not guilty to extortion conspiracy charges in a March indictment, of recruiting other officers and doling out their illegal payments himself, skimming some off the top for himself.

Corona's lawyer, Thomas J. Saunders, declined to comment Monday.

Some of the officers are also accused of inflating or inflicting vehicle damage "in order to increase Majestic's profit from the insurance company payments," the plea agreements state. The additional damage caused between $200,000 and $1 million in losses for insurance companies.

For example, an insurance carrier paid Majestic more than $2,000 for repairs to a car "even though most of the damage had been done by [Moreno]" in December 2010, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake said in reviewing Moreno's plea agreement Monday.

Mejia and Moreno said they paid officers a total of between $200,000 and $1 million — the same amount as the estimated insurance loss — during the scheme. They've agreed to forfeit all illegal gains, as have the officers who pleaded guilty.