A letter written by a prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney's Public Integrity Division reveals an investigation is underway into the practices of some of the wrecker drivers working under the city of Houston's SAFEClear program.
SAFEClear was started under Mayor Bill White as a way to help alleviate traffic congestion by having only designated wrecker companies’ tow vehicles off the freeway.
Jeanette Rash, owner of Fast Tow and operations manager for the SAFEClear program, and Suzanne Poole, president of the Houston Professional Towing Association, both told Local 2 Investigates the city began auditing the program more than a year ago.
Rash and Poole said companies participating in the program were told to hand over hundreds of thousands of SAFEClear "tow slips" as part of the audit.
A former SAFEClear driver, Eric Martin, provided Local 2 with a letter he said he received from the DA's Office that was June 7th, 2013. The letter states the DA's Office "has received a complaint against you from the Houston Police Department alleging the offense of theft by a public servant."
"Shocked, I was actually shocked when, you know, I got the letter," said Martin.
Martin said he was cleared of any wrongdoing, but shared with Local 2 what he was told when he was questioned by a Houston Police investigator. Martin said the investigator told him the department was looking into whether some SAFEClear drivers charged the city for tows that were never performed.
"All you needed was a (vehicle identification) number and a license plate and they were forging a signature, and then get paid from the city of Houston," Martin said.
"So they would go out and get somebody's (vehicle identification) number and license plate and then fill out a slip telling the City of Houston we towed this car under the SAFEClear program?" asked Local 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
"Yes," Martin said.
"When they really didn't?" Arnold asked.
"Yes, that's right," Martin said.
"That's what the investigator said he was looking at?" Arnold asked.
"Yes that what it is," said Martin.
Officials with the District Attorney's office would not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation. Officials with HPD would only state that there is an on-going criminal investigation.
Rash said she was aware some drivers had been questioned by police but that she has not heard of any outcome regarding the city's audit. Rash said her company alone provided the city with 50,000 SAFEClear tow slips as part of the audit. Rash defended the program saying it has helped relieve congestion and made the freeways safer. Rash estimates 500,000 SAFEClear tows have been performed in six years.
"We're anxiously awaiting the results of the audit," Rash said. "If the city does find wrong-doing then I hope it gets taken care of, no matter who it is."
Poole told Local 2 she was told by HPD investigators they were also checking into whether some drivers double billed for SAFEClear tows.
"In talking to others in SAFEClear, payments from $10,000 to $40,000 have already been repaid to the city for overcharging," Poole said.
In 2011, citing a lack of funds, the city stopped providing free short distance tows under the SAFEClear program and began charging drivers a nominal fee.