Tuesday, August 11, 2009

IL Towing Scandal Snares Ex-Officer

Here's the story from St. Louis Today:
ST. LOUIS — The federal investigation into misconduct involving the St. Louis Police Department and a local towing and parking company expanded Monday with the guilty plea of a former police detective.

Kevin Shade, 35, waived indictment by a grand jury Monday morning and pleaded guilty to a single felony charge of mail fraud. The court proceeding was the first time Shade had been identified as part of criminal activity involved with the towing scandal.

As part of his plea, Shade admitted that over an almost four-year period, he was involved in a scheme to fraudulently obtain clear titles for impounded vehicles.

Between October 2004 and August 2008, Shade took cash bribes to sign off on documents that said vehicles he had inspected had no flaws, or only minor flaws. They actually had obvious flaws, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen said in court.

Shade's signature on the forms meant that S&H Parking Systems would receive a normal title to those vehicles from the state instead of a salvage title, boosting the value of the vehicle.

Shade was one of the officers responsible for vehicle inspections in the department, which is allowed to do the inspections under state law. The Missouri Highway Patrol performs most of the inspections.
Shade also admitted that St. Louis Metropolitan Towing manager Gregory P. Shepard "and others" were involved in the scheme. Metropolitan Towing and S&H are associated companies.

Shade has agreed to cooperate in the investigation and potentially testify, Jensen said in court.

Shepard was indicted on multiple counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and bribery on June 25.

That indictment accuses Shepard and the unidentified "others" of a wide-ranging scheme that included attempts to boost fees for storing towed cars by lying to owners to keep them there longer. The scheme also involved inflating the mileage fees Metropolitan charged for towing cars owned by rental companies, the indictment says.

Shepard, a former police detective, oversaw vehicle impounds for years while on the force. He retired in 1999, then joined Metropolitan.

Shepard has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer, Dave Harlan, has said that he is innocent. Harlan declined to comment on Shade's guilty plea Monday, saying did not have any information on the plea.

Prosecutors declined to comment after the brief court hearing. They, investigators and defense attorneys declined to identify the "others" allegedly involved.

Shade's plea comes well over a year after federal investigators began looking into the relationship between Metropolitan Towing and the Police Department. It comes just over a year since the department, after receiving inquiries from the Post-Dispatch, admitted that Metropolitan had been allowing officers and the daughter of then-Chief Joe Mokwa to use towed cars for free.

In subsequent months, the newspaper revealed that Metropolitan shortchanged the city by at least $700,000 on towing revenue that they were supposed to share, and that police and Metropolitan employees improperly towed and kept the vehicles

Metropolitan's owners, brothers William and Kenneth Bialczak, have not been mentioned in either criminal indictment. Their lawyer, Sanford Boxerman, said, "The information available to me suggests that neither Bill or Ken has done anything illegal."

"I'm sure people are forming conclusions. I'm not sure the conclusions that people are forming are the correct ones," he said.

Mokwa's lawyer, Neil Bruntrager, said Mokwa was not involved in wrongdoing and has not been interviewed by investigators.

Shade resigned from the department the same day Shepard was indicted. The department did not immediately respond to questions about the terms of his departure or how those terms would be affected by his guilty plea.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, he could face 12 to 18 months in federal prison. He is likely to get a considerable break, even possibly probation, in exchange for his cooperation, lawyers said.

"It was a difficult decision for … Officer Shade, but he's certainly considered all his options but believed this to be his best option given the circumstances," said Scott Rosenblum, one of Shade's lawyers.

Rosenblum said Shade was willing to accept responsibility for "something he did" and was looking forward to a "bright future and career in something other than law enforcement."

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