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Baltimore delays towing contract decisions amid complaints vendors were unfairly targeted by inspector general

Baltimore’s spending board delayed decisions on two city towing contracts Wednesday amid objections from attorneys for two vendors who claimed their clients were unfairly maligned by the city’s inspector general.

The five-member Board of Estimates opted to defer decisions on whether to terminate a contract for police-requested towing and to reject bids for a separate heavy equipment towing contract until at least next week. However, the board did allow representatives from both companies to voice complaints about the process.

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Universal Towing, a West Baltimore company that previously provided police-requested towing for the city, has been suspended from its contract since early February following the release of a report from the city’s Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming. That report, which did not name the vendor, said the company had violated the city’s contract by towing three vehicles to a private lot rather than a city lot. The company attempted to scrap the three vehicles, in violation of the state’s transportation code, according to the report.

In February, Tiffani Collins, an attorney for Universal Towing owner Malik Stuckey, held a news conference in front of City Hall to argue the inspector general’s office unfairly targeted her client for conduct other towing companies are guilty of. She suggested the inspector general’s report was racially motivated. Stuckey is Black.

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“They choose to single out Mr. Stuckey. Why? Because he’s a Black operating tow owner?” Collins said at the time.

Cumming defended the investigation at the time and noted it was conducted by a diverse group of investigators.

On Wednesday, Universal Towing was represented by attorney William Selinsky, who argued officials at the city’s lot turned Universal Towing away. He also said it was the responsibility of Baltimore Police to send notices to the registered owners of the vehicles, not the towing company as the city alleged, and he blamed an auto dismantler for not completing paperwork certifying the vehicles’ lawful possession.

“There were no other tow companies investigated the same way,” Selinsky argued.

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Jim Corley, an attorney for the city, noted the probe began when the owner of the vehicles, Enterprise, contacted the National Insurance Crime Bureau, not with the city.

“There was no intent to target Mr. Stuckey,” he said.

Members of the board did not ask questions of either attorney.

Baltimore has more than a dozen towing contracts, many for police requested towing and some others that serve particular regions of the city. Also delayed by the board Wednesday was the proposed rejection of two bids for the city’s towing contract covering cars, trucks and heavy equipment. That contract was previously held by The Auto Barn, a West Baltimore towing company that has been the subject of two inspector general reports.

The first report, issued in September, found an unnamed towing vendor overcharged the city by nearly $130,000 over five years, padding its bills with items listed as “labor” and “administrative fees.”

The report noted the vendor won a $1 million contract on Dec. 24, 2014 to be the city’s primary tow operator, making it clear the vendor was The Auto Barn based on past Board of Estimates agendas.

A second report, issued in January, found the same company continued to work for the city throughout 2020 despite the expiration of its contract in December 2019. Additionally, the vendor did not meet requirements to share proceeds with women and minority-owned subcontractors, the second report found.

City officials said in January they were in the process of rebidding the contract. On Wednesday, city officials recommended the board reject bids from both The Auto Barn and PLE Towing, also known as Miles Towing, so they could restructure the bidding process. Officials said they hope to attract more bidders.

Charles Curlett, an attorney for The Auto Barn, argued the city was rebidding the contract as a result of the inspector general’s reports on his client. In a letter submitted to the board prior to the meeting, he called the reports “patently incorrect” and a “one-sided hunt for deception.”

The company overcharged the city by $12,000, Curlett acknowledged during an interview with The Baltimore Sun, far less than the amount alleged by the inspector general, he argued.

Stephen Potter, an attorney for the city, argued The Auto Barn had no rights to protest the rejection of the two bids under board rules.

“Certainly The Auto Barn will be able to bid on this revised request for proposals,” Potter said. “It is not in any way related to any findings by the Office of the Inspector General.”

Cumming noted Wednesday that both investigations began with tips from outside her office.

“These cases are no different than any other ones the OIG conducts,” she said. “The OIG conducts the investigation and turns the findings over to management for further action...In these cases, these files were turned over to the Baltimore Law Department which did further investigation and came up with the recommendations we heard today.”

“My mission is transparency and accountability to the citizens of Baltimore City,” Cumming added. “We are trying to follow that mission. The rest of it is noise.”

The inspector general’s office has been scrutinized by the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP following the release of a report from the office on the travels and private companies of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. Mosby requested the investigation following media reports on the subject. Collins, who has represented Universal Towing, was a among a group of attorneys who were slated to appear at a news conference on the matter that was scheduled and then canceled.

Marilyn Mosby’s husband, Nick Mosby, is City Council president and chairs the Board of Estimates. Comptroller Bill Henry, also a member of the board, asked for the deferral of the towing contracts Wednesday. Mosby pressed to discuss the items anyway.

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