DETROIT (WXYZ) — After a series of high-profile towing scandals, the City of Detroit is embroiled in its latest and, quite possibly, its most seismic.
Mayor Mike Duggan and Police Chief James White have each vowed to overhaul a towing process that has been rife with allegations of favoritism and corruption and been a source of embarrassment for the city dating back to the Kwame Kilpatrick era.
“90% of the problems deal with towing,” Duggan said this month.
Until recently, Commander Michael Parish was the department’s towing monitor, tasked with ensuring that tow companies followed the city’s rules and didn’t receive an unfair advantage.
“I do believe that the roots of the problem lie in the towing industry itself,” Parish told 7 Action News.
Unlike most industries, Parish believes the towing business invites bribery because tow services offer largely the same service: they use similiar trucks, similar equipment and offer largely the same service.
“If your business is not going to separate you from the other, then the ingredients are there to go to extraordinary measures so make sure that you’ve carved out your niche in the field," Parish said.
Tom Berry is a retired Detroit Police Lieutenant who says he saw tow companies cozy up to officers in his decades on the force.
“(Towers) would gain the police officer’s confidence and they’d gain their trust and, especially, they’d gain their like,” Berry said.
For some officers, bonds were formed over Hennessey or a boxing match on Pay-Per-View.
In Detroit, towing companies are used by police around the clock to tow cars that have been seized, stolen or in accidents.
When in need of a to truck, an officer is supposed to call a towing dispatcher who follows a rotation of 16 approved companies to make sure business is shared equally. But for a company looking for an edge, knowing the right cop can make all the difference.
Instead of using the towing rotation, Berry says cops would make calls on their cell phones to their favored tow company, collecting between $100 and $200 a pop.
“So they start making this money,” Berry said. “Well, what do you think they do? They run their mouth…and the towers would say hey, do you know anybody else?'”
Soon, Berry said, word of the arrangement could spread to other officers.
“How many cops do you think are or were on the take?” asked Channel 7’s Ross Jones.
“I know a couple that retired and they were involved,” Berry said. “I’m not going to mention their names because they weren’t charged and they weren’t convicted. Some of these people I worked with. Some of these people were my friends.”
The city now admits that its towing system was too easy to exploit, and faults what officials call a murky permitting process overseen by the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners that didn’t rely on competitive bidding.
“The system that was under the Board of Police Commissioners had no controls in it,” Duggan said earlier this month, “I’ve been dismantling it and I’m going to finish dismantling it.”
Until recently, commissioners like Linda Bernard had oversight over towing. But when 7 Action News talked with her about how to clean up the process, we were surprised to hear her praise Gasper Fiore, a disgraced tower who the feds called a “prolific bribe payer.”
“I do respect Gasper because he’s a hardworking man who wears, I’ve never seen him without muddy boots,” Bernard said.
His boots weren’t the only thing that was dirty. The feds say Fiore bribed Deputy Police Chief Celia Washington, Councilwoman Monica Conyers and Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick just to name a few.
He went to prison in 2018 and was banned from towing for the city for 20 years.
But Fiore’s checks still cashed.
Commissioner Bernard, according to campaign records, collected a $1,750 donation from Fiore last year—the same year he was released from prison—and another $1,750 from his daughter.
“He handed out bribes like they were candy,” Jones said.
“I understand that, he did hand out bribes, he handed out money to people who asked him for money. And he had money to give. Right?” Bernard said. “It’s not right. It’s wrong because they were public officials.”
“But you don’t have a problem accepting money from him,” Jones asked.
“No, I don’t,” Bernard said, adding later, “There are crimes, and then there are super crimes”
“Are you saying that bribing public officials is not a ‘super crime?’ Jones asked.
“I think bribing public officials is similar to something my mom used to say all the time: Woodward is a two-way street,” Bernard said.
While Commissioner Bernard defended Fiore, the Detroit Towers Association would not.
Barry Foster is its president and urges the public not to fault an entire industry for Fiore’s sins.
As of today, none of his members have been charged with anything.
“It’s not fair for us all to be branded as corrupt individuals or company owners, or when you see a tow truck owner going down the road,” Foster said. “We’re there to help people.”
Foster said he doesn’t believe any of his members will be indicted.
To fix the ongoing problem, DPD is planning to buy a new software system that will assign tows as they’re needed to approved companies.
It’s aimed at cutting out “human element,” leaving it to computers instead.
And the system will be audited, the chief says, to test whether officers are influencing the process.
“This will help guard against anyone who’s steering tows towards certain companies,” said Chief James White.
But the city’s problems, according to former U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, go deeper than just towing.
“The problem is towing, but it’s collision shops, it’s building inspectors, it’s trash hauling,” Schneider said. “The problem isn’t about towing. It’s about bribery.”
Schneider, who helped prosecute Fiore, Celia Washington and other high-profile figures caught up in prior towing scandals, said that the problems being seen today are merely a symptom; the disease that needs to be eradicated is corruption.
How far it’s spread won’t be known until the feds digging is done.
Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or (248) 827-9466.