TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: What a haul — campus towing contracts can be big (and sometimes dirty) money

The recent bribery conviction of a California businessman, found guilty of paying inducements to a campus police chief in exchange for automobile towing referrals, highlights just how much money is at stake in the wrecker business — and how closely it needs watching.

According to trial testimony, Morgan McComas of Pirot Towing in San Jacinto, Calif., gave gifts — including free rims for a personal pickup truck — to the then-head of the Mount San Jacinto College Police Department to induce the chief to steer business to the Pirot firm. (The chief, Kevin Segawa, entered a plea and served six months in jail on a variety of corruption charges, The Press-Enterprise reports.)

Murky business dealings in the award of towing contracts are, of course, not limited to college campuses. This week in a Tampa courtroom, prosecutors are unfurling a sordid story of how, they allege, towing company operators paid off Hillsborough County, Fla., officials in exchange for preferential treatment.

And in Baltimore, the co-owners of a towing and auto-repair company pleaded guilty July 11 to charges that they paid off police — as many as 50 officers may be involved — to refer motorists to their wrecker service, even though the service wasn’t on the city’s approved vendor list.

Proving that money changed hands for favors can require confidential informants and undercover impersonators, but student watchdogs can do some fairly easy public-records sleuthing to at least raise the question of whether their colleges’ towing contracts are fair.

  • First, get the contract. Contracts between public universities and their vendors are a matter of public record in any state. Towing contracts typically are signed by the head of the public safety or police department, so that’s a logical place to start asking.
  • Look at the terms — who’s getting paid how much, and what promises or assurances were made? Is one vendor guaranteed a certain share of the college’s business (or all of it)?
  • Next, ask about bidding. In most states, a contract over a certain dollar threshold requires at least seeking “proposals” if not “bids.” (A “request for proposals” is a somewhat more informal process in which the suitability of the service generally is valued above price, whereas a true “bidding” process is price-driven.) If the bidding process is over, then the files of all bidders — successful and unsuccessful — should be publicly accessible.
  • If there was no bidding process, check state law (or ask your state attorney general’s office) and find out whether there should have been. And never forget that, in a cutthroat business, competing companies are often the best sources — though also remember that they are motivated to shade the story in their favor.
  • Assuming that there were disappointed bidders who didn’t get the contract, run a check at the local state or county courthouse in the civil division of the clerk’s office to see whether a lawsuit was filed. Unsuccessful bidders may bring legal challenges asserting that the process was unlawfully stacked against them, and such suits can be a motherlode of insider information that otherwise would never come to light.
  • It’s possible that no contract exists. If that’s the case, then ask to see a copy of any internal policies or regulations about which towing company gets called when a car is disabled or illegally parked. There ought to be some reason — whether it’s price, or a rotation method, or some measurement of service quality — that determines which vendor the police do business with. And similarly, there ought to be a record of which companies actually got called — which can be interesting to examine, to see whether the policy on paper matches the reality on the road.
  • Finally, contract or no contract, the ultimate public-interest story is in whether the rates paid by those unfortunate enough to be towed are fair — and whether the college is getting a percentage that rewards the school for offering insufficient parking. It’s always a worthwhile public service to compare the campus’ towing rates with those of other jurisdictions, including comparable colleges, to see whether students are being taken for a ride.