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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Southern CA Tow Companies Say Rotation System Is Fair

Here's The Press-Enterprise story:

Inland tow operators and law enforcement say that the tow rotation system is fair, equitable and running smoothly, despite the recent arrest of a college police chief on charges of participating in a kickback scheme with a tow truck operator.

"This was an isolated thing," said Dave Clark, owner of Clark's Towing in San Jacinto.

Most California cities and counties have a rotation set up with area tow operators so when a law enforcement agency needs a vehicle towed, the business gets spread out equally.

Last month, Kevin Segawa, 39, Mt. San Jacinto College's former police chief, was charged with eight felonies and two misdemeanors alleging, in part, that he accepted bribes from a local towing company, then steered a majority of the towing jobs to that company.

Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco said a public agency giving exclusive towing rights to one company is a violation of state law, and receiving gifts in exchange for that arrangement amounts to bribery.

But tow company owners say the rotation system adopted by the California Highway Patrol in 1988 -- the protocol for most county and city law enforcement agencies in the state -- is the best there is.

Gone are the dangerous, first-come first-serve days when 20 tow truck drivers who had been glued to their police scanners would race to an accident scene, operators say.

If businesses in the rotation are being passed over, operators say, they will complain and get the system fixed.

Big share

From 2005 to 2008, Mt. San Jacinto College police officers had about 1,200 vehicles on and around the two campuses in San Jacinto and Menifee towed for various vehicle code violations, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Riverside County district attorney's office.

Although an informal tow rotation agreement existed involving four companies, Segawa directed 85 percent of the tows to San Jacinto-based Pirot's Towing Service, investigators say. That generated an estimated $200,000 to $500,000 in potential profit for the towing company, Hall said.

Segawa has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery, perjury and misappropriation of funds. Shortly after the charges were filed, he resigned as police chief at the college, which had placed him on administrative leave last summer.

Morgan McComas, who owns Pirot's, has pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of bribery and misappropriation of public funds.

Sgt. Gina Matteucci, who is in charge of the CHP's towing rotation program in Sacramento, said she wasn't aware of the case at Mt. San Jacinto College.

"Colleges have their own protocol and towing procedures," she said.

In most cases, the towing companies themselves are the best watchdogs, keeping track online or through scanners, Matteucci said.

"A small operation could go under the radar," she allowed.

'it's working fine'

Most law enforcement agencies handle their towing rotations with a computer program, said Clark, whose San Jacinto company has service agreements with many neighboring municipalities as well as the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and the CHP.

Still, Clark said he personally monitors the calls on a police scanner.

"I'll call if I get passed over," he said. "I don't want to miss anything. It's income."

Casey Horvath, owner of Hamner Towing in Corona, is president of the 1,000-member Inland Empire chapter of the California Tow Truck Association. There's no prescribed number of towing operators per city, he said, "but the companies have to meet certain requirements to be selected."

Among other things, they must have insurance and proof of workmen's compensation, pass drug and background checks, be certified through the California Tow Truck Association and show inspected equipment.

The Riverside Police Department pays a private company to handle the rotation of 16 towing companies divided into north and south regions, said Karen Haverkamp, a spokeswoman in the department's traffic bureau.

"It's working fine," she said. "If we get complaints, we look into them."

Bill Bell, owner of Town & Country Towing, which has offices in Lake Elsinore, Perris and Temecula, said the towing rotation is a "tightly controlled enterprise, self-regulated through a system of checks and balances."

"If one company is favored, the others complain to law enforcement," Bell said.

Reach Laurie Lucas at llucas@PE .com or 951-368-9569

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