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Towing contract at center of racial allegation canceled by Baltimore spending board


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Baltimore’s spending board terminated a contract with a city towing vendor Wednesday over vigorous objections from City Council President Nick Mosby and the vendor himself.

 

The decision capped weeks of investigation, argument and an allegation of racism over a probe of the contract, sparked by a January report from Baltimore Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming saying West Baltimore vendor Universal Towing violated the terms of its contract by towing three vehicles to a private rather than a city lot. The company also violated the state’s transportation code, the report said, by attempting to scrap the vehicles.

 

The owner of the three vehicles, Enterprise, made a complaint to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, whose investigators brought the issue to the inspector general.

 

In January, Baltimore suspended its contract with Universal Towing, which involves towing vehicles at the request of police, citing the inspector general’s findings. The city Law Department conducted its own subsequent investigation, and recommended the Baltimore Board of Estimates end the contract.

 

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

 

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

 

Cumming responded at the time that it was “just not true” that she targets anyone. She said the towing investigation was conducted by a diverse group of investigators. She also noted that the law department and the city agency involved in managing a contract, not the inspector general’s office, recommends any disciplinary action.

 

Appearing twice before the Board of Estimates this month, another attorney for Universal Towing did not make such a claim. Instead, William Selinsky, presented an argument about the logistics of the contract. Selinsky said Wednesday that the city’s lot turned Universal Towing away due to a closure related to the coronavirus.

 

Stuckey provided emails to The Baltimore Sun showing the lot closed in mid-May. According to the emails, the lot reopened by May 26. The vehicles involved in the inspector general’s report were towed in July or later.

 

Baltimore delays towing contract decisions »

Stuckey, who appeared before the board’s virtual meeting by phone Wednesday, said city employees routinely turned away his tow truck drivers from the city yard.

 

James Corley, an attorney for the city, said he spoke to those employees and they said no tow drivers were told to leave. Security footage from the lot showed no tow trucks approaching the yard during the time when Stuckey said they were directed to turn around, Corley said.

 

Mosby, the chair of the five-member estimates board, defended Universal Towing and cast the lone vote in favor of preserving the contract. Contending the situation arose from a “very unique event” due to the coronavirus, Mosby said it appeared to be a miscommunication, and cautioned the city against being overly “punitive” to a Black-owned business.

“Obviously, our city has had a very hard time identifying folks to participate in a very important program for the city for decades,” the Democrat said. “This company, being the first to break many barriers, many walls, and for us to put them out of business based off of things they should have done, could have done, maybe not understood, maybe could have been better presented by the city. Maybe there are things that could have been done by the city.”

 

At a previous hearing this month, Selinsky argued it was the responsibility of Baltimore Police to send notices to the registered owners of the vehicles, not Universal Towing as the city alleged. He blamed an auto dismantler for not completing paperwork certifying the vehicles’ lawful possession. Issues relating to the scrapping of the vehicles attracted investigators.

Stuckey, who broke into tears several times during Wednesday’s meeting, said he has lost $92,000 as a result of the suspension and laid off more than half his 10-member staff.

 

Report: Baltimore continued to use towing vendor after probe showed overbilling, no contract »

Mosby said the proposal to terminate the contract “gives me great pause and concern in the midst of a global pandemic.”

Democratic Councilman John Bullock attended the meeting and also spoke on behalf of Stuckey.

 

“It doesn’t appear there was any malfeasance on the part of the business operator,” Bullock said, faulting a lack of communication and clarity for the dispute.

 

Democratic Comptroller Bill Henry, also a member of the board, questioned whether Stuckey employed the help of city police to search for the owners of the vehicles. Stuckey said he attempted to contact two detectives with a regional auto theft task force, but was told they were too busy.

 

Henry voted in favor of terminating the contract along with Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott, City Solicitor Jim Shea and acting Director of Public Works Matthew Garbark.

 

The board also voted unanimously Wednesday to reject two bids for a separate towing contract for oversized vehicles, despite a protest filed by one of the bidders, The Auto Barn. The contract will be rebid.

 

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