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Thursday, 23 August 2012 15:33

Shop Owner Wars with Boynton Beach

Over the past two years, David Floering—who has owned Eastern Auto Body and Glass, Inc. (dba as Eastern Towing and Recovery) in Boynton Beach, FL, for 24 years—has become something of an expert in fighting city government.

It all started in 2010 when he lost his towing contract with the city. Since then, Floering spends about a third of his work week sorting through piles of papers, investigating, filing complaints and pursuing his one-man fight against the city of Boynton Beach.

Floering, 51, takes full advantage of chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes, which requires the government to disclose most records to anyone upon request. He’s filed 41 public records requests since 2010, asking to see all types of documents: police reports, emails and personnel files for top city officials. His research led to the fall of the town’s mayor.

In June, a judge ruled in Floering’s favor and awarded him attorney fees for being denied a public records request which involved city officials illegally withholding a video related to a domestic dispute between Mayor Jose Rodriguez and his wife. The actual allegations were in regards to his alleged abuse of his young stepdaughter. Rodriguez was not charged with domestic crimes and the case closed within a month. However, three months later, because of Floering’s request for the video, the matter got the attention of a Boynton Beach police sergeant in the department’s Special Victim’s Unit, who reopened the case.

In the ensuing follow-up investigation, Rodriguez was arrested for interfering with the investigation and abusing his power as mayor. The Broward/Palm Beach New Times reported that Rodriguez denied that he tried to stop the investigation, but the state attorney’s office still found probable cause to arrest him in January on three charges—unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior (a felony), as well as misdemeanor counts of solicitation to commit unlawful disclosure of confidential criminal information and obstructing a law enforcement officer (resisting arrest without violence). During the course of the investigation, the police chief and the city manager said the mayor pressured them to stop the follow-up investigation into claims made by his estranged wife, who according to the initial police report, said she feared for the safety of herself and her daughter. The initial investigation closed because the wife was uncooperative. The day after the mayor’s January 26 arrest, Gov. Rick Scott suspended him from office without pay. The former mayor faces 15 years in prison if convicted of these charges. A trial date has been set for October.

In June, local news outlets reported that prosecutors brought a fourth corruption charge against Rodriguez, accusing him of misusing his official position to attempt to benefit himself, which made Rodriguez the first person ever charged under Palm Beach County’s new code of ethics statute.

In July, the former mayor was charged in a separate case with three felony charges which allege he defrauded a bank in a short sale.

Previous to all this, Floering’s earlier run-ins with the mayor included accusing him last year of using his position to lessen his property taxes, but the ethics commission dismissed Floering’s complaint. A few months later, the mayor filed a defamation lawsuit against Floering accusing him of lying to area merchants and asking that they post signs in their stores critical of Rodriguez. According to local news reports, Floering put up a billboard on a federal highway lot and posted a sign on a trailer. Both accused the mayor of tax fraud and “pay to play.” However, the defamation suit was officially dismissed in early August.

“The mayor of Boynton Beach sued me for slander because I said he would be arrested for some of the stuff he was doing, his business dealings, and lo and behold, he was arrested,” Floering says. “He withdrew [the lawsuit] because I was using his whole lawsuit against him to do research to get him. He was an idiot.”

Floering says the city owes him about $22,000 in attorney fees of which he hasn’t seen a dime and his attorney is being ignored. Additionally, Floering claims the Boynton Beach Police Department owes him $52,374.24 for unpaid towing bills from 2005–2010.

Floering says his actions against the mayor started in 2010 when his towing contract with the city expired and he was nudged out of a new one. The two towing companies that won the bid pay franchise fees—$100,000 a year each for the rights to move vehicles. Floering says the city changed the rules during the 2010 competition for a towing contract in a way that made it impossible for him to bid. He says the new contract included requirements which precluded him from bidding on the contract, such as having a certain number of trucks, other equipment requirements, and in addition, he couldn’t bid because he also owns a body shop. Not only that, to be on the towing rotation, a tow company has to pony up the $100,000 franchise fee. Floering says he didn’t feel the contract was legitimate.

The city’s towing franchise with Beck’s Towing & Recovery and Zuccala’s Wrecker Service is administered by the Boynton Beach Police Department.

“The cars are being towed by the police because the tow companies have a contract with the police department where they pay a franchise fee,” says Floering. “And in the city of Boynton Beach, it’s less than 1,000 cars a year. Two tow companies pay $100,000 each a year to tow these cars. Do the math and it works out to more than $200 a car that the city is getting as a franchise fee—which, to me, is a roundabout kickback. The city is happy because they are getting the money. These tow companies have exclusive tow contracts with the police and so the police call them and they either call the crash chasers or the crash chasers listen to the radio.”

Floering’s company had been on the towing rotation with six other companies for 15 years. “I had seen how this tow franchise thing had shaped up in the city of Delray and I could see the corruption involved in it,” he says.

“The guys came by here and told me if I didn’t pay up, they’d put me out of business.” He says the guys were “ambulance chasers who went around to body shops and said they were pretty much taking over and if [body shops] wanted any kind of work, they needed to pay a fee, usually $500 per car or 10% of the estimate. I wasn’t going to agree to anything like that. The whole idea was if you didn’t get on board and do what they wanted, they would discourage customers from coming to your shop,” Floering says.

The loss of income from losing the towing contract cut Floering’s business in half. He was forced to lay off two employees and is left with himself, his wife, one full-time and one part-time employee.

“I’m starving. I’m on the fringe of bankruptcy,” he said. “I don’t know if this time next year I’ll still be here.” Even though the mortgage on his building is paid off and he owns his tow trucks, he still feels like he could be out of business in a year. “There are too many weeks I don’t get a paycheck. It doesn’t make sense to stay in business if you’re not making any money.”

Floering blames the mayor, saying he worked with a company through lobbyist David Katz to get the towing rotation changed to a franchise fee. Katz is a former city commissioner who twice came under local or federal criminal investigation for lobbying activities. In 2008, Katz was accused of taking money from two towing firms competing for city business. The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office anti-money laundering task force filed a complaint.

“The lobbyist was David Katz and I found out that he’d received a $13,000 check from Westway Towing to get the towing rotation program dismantled and get the franchise fee implemented. Once I found out about that, I went to the FBI and there was a big investigation over potential bribery issues of city officials. The investigation didn’t prove anything, but it stalled the franchise fee program for about six months,” Floering says.

Furthermore, Floering accuses Rodriguez of making threats against him. “When Jose Rodriguez decided to run for mayor (he was city commissioner at the time), he came to me and said I had to support his campaign for mayor and support the franchise fee or he would make sure I didn’t have any business in Florida. Once he started attacking not just me, but my business and the support of my family, I had to react. The mayor told me I would never tow another car in Boynton again,” Floering says.

In a December 2, 2010 email memo to police staff, Det. Scott Harris, who serves as the liaison between the police department and the city’s two tow vendors, Harris wrote: “Please allow this wrecker operator to do his job; he will make your job a whole lot easier.” The email describes a black pick-up truck with a driver wearing the uniform of one of the two tow companies.

Floering believes this memo outlines the “accident management” system which allows the “crash chasers” to do their job. “They are allowed to do whatever they want to organize these PIP fraud stuff. The memo goes into detail, very damaging to the PD, I can’t believe they actually put it [in words],” Floering says.

“The whole crash chaser process is condoned and authorized and encouraged by the Boynton Police Department because they are getting their $200,000 franchise fee,” says Floering. “I’ve actually given documents to the FBI because the police department is in cahoots with it.”

In his fight against so-called crash crashers, Floering, 18 months ago filed a formal written complaint with Palm Beach County Division of Consumer Affairs under an ordinance that regulates the towing industry. His complaints allege “an organized scheme to defraud the motoring public by the two tow companies (Beck’s Towing Recovery and Zuccala’s Wrecker Service) and the city of Boynton Beach.” Floering said an initial investigation was done before it was referred to the City of Boynton Beach and Floering says the city attorney “never responded to it any way, shape or form.” He also filed a similar complaint with the county General Inspector, who he describes as an “anti-corruption” person.

Floering cites an example of one of his customers, an 84-year-woman who uses a walker, who had been in an accident and told the police that she wanted Floering’s company to tow her car. According to Floering, the police refused her request and she was told by the police that she had to walk over to Wal-mart, a 1/4 mile away, to use a phone to call the towing company herself.

Floering initiated an internal affairs investigation into the incident and both the customer and he made statements but the report, he says, reflected “the exact opposite of what our statements were.” His next move was to forward the complaint to the State Attorney’s Office.

Last month, Floering said the city adopted an amendment to the contract that clarifies that the police are allowed to call whatever towing company they want so accident victims can’t make requests for tow companies, even if they have an auto club membership.

These days, Floering is taking his fight against “crash chasers”—people who listen to radio traffic reports, use scanners or even use smartphone apps and show up at accident scenes pretending to be an insurance adjuster or an auto body shop or legitimate tow truck company to trick accident victims into signing a work order for a specific body shop or directing them to a certain body shop. By the time the insurance company gets involved, there’s a very large towing and storage bill to release the car and some insurance companies are refusing to pay it, leaving the owner on the hook, because it’s not part of claim, but fraudulent activity.

The crash chasers are also involved in committing PIP fraud. State law in Florida’s no-fault car insurance system forces drivers to buy personal injury protection coverage. The coverage pays for injuries and lost wages up to $10,000 regardless of who is at fault in a crash. Criminals then stage fake accidents and submit fraudulent injury claims, many times with the aid of doctors and other treatment providers.

In May, Vincenzo Gurrera, owner of Collision World in Boynton Beach, was charged with impersonating an insurance adjuster at accident scenes to generate more business for his auto body shop by giving specific directions to people to take their cars to his shop for repairs. Those involved in the crashes told investigators they signed Gurrera’s release forms because they thought he was a legitimate insurance representative. In July, Gurrera was arrested again with new charges of insurance fraud.

Floering says he had actually turned in this guy in one of his complaints to Internal Affairs. Floering says he participated in the investigation with the insurance companies.

Autobody News will continue to invite comment from those named in the story.

 

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