Towing scandals in city are nothing new

The newspaper headline read: "Tow-truck operators … make pay-offs to officers who arrange business from crash victims."

It could easily describe the criminal charges filed Wednesday against 17 Baltimore police officers in an alleged kickback scheme. But the story is from 1965. And it is nearly identical to another case from 1956.


Allegations of corruption involving police, towing companies and car repair shops have long been a staple of city politics, and have led to grand jury probes, criminal investigations, commissions and repeated changes in how the business is regulated.

Still, authorities say, the problem appears to have resurfaced.

The kickbacks described a half-century ago are small compared to this week's allegations — a cop got $5 for each car steered to a certain garage in 1956, according to the testimony of one tow truck driver in federal court — but the principle was the same.

Cops had their own side deals with garages and directed victims of car accidents to those places. In 1965, cops got $10 a car. Today, prosecutors said the graft has risen to as much as $300 a car, with one officer accused in the criminal complaint of taking in $14,500 over two years.

In 1998, a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed that the city's licensed tow companies had violated rules requiring them to stay within certain geographic boundaries. The story noted that one company received $1.5 million from the city in a single year.

"Towing is a $12 million industry in this town," City Councilman Robert W. Curran said Wednesday, saying that more than 60,000 cars are towed in the city annually, including those taken from private lots, parking ticket scofflaws, illegal parkers and cars involved in accidents. "There are going to be people trying to take advantage of the system."

Curran closely follows towing issues and has successfully sponsored several bills to protect residents from unfair towing practices. A 2008 bill by Curran increased fines for "predatory towers" who speed to accidents before police officers arrive and haul away damaged vehicles although they are not licensed by the city.

While the medallion towers must charge a set rate between $130 and $140, the predatory towers bilk insurance companies for as much as $1,000 per tow, Curran said. "I was trying to stop an insurance scam."

Tow truck drivers as far back as a half-century ago described how they worked on commission and often monitored police radios to race to accident scenes. The accounts were described in detail in a series of Baltimore Sun articles in the mid-1960s.

A tow truck driver testified that he'd doled out $9,000 to a single cop in 1964, and said he averaged $4,500 in annual payouts to other officers. The driver said the scheme was so lucrative that garage owners had to pass work on to competitors because they were too swamped.

A traffic officer who testified anonymously before a city commission set up to examine the problem in 1965 said that officers often refused to handle accidents if "the tower called to the scene [was] not one who makes the pay-offs."

The officer described a culture of low morale and complained that the department "wouldn't let you do your job," so he and others "had to go along with the game." He said car accident victims put their faith in his advice — "the motorist has a lot of confidence in the police."

The officer said he came forward because "this business has gone too far."

Though an independent inquiry by Baltimore's Justice Commission confirmed the graft in 1965, a grand jury, whose members questioned the owners of 30 tow company owners, did not indict anyone. The case ended without any criminal charges.


The officer told the commission that "everyone is doing it."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article