City, police address Channel 2 Investigation that led to towing company raid, owner's arrest
HOUSTON – Houston Police Department Auto Theft investigators and the Harris County District Attorney's Office addressed Friday the results of an investigation into fraudulent and deceptive practices at a southeast Houston body shop.
Federal and local police raided USA Auto Collision Center Thursday morning, arresting the owner and seizing records. The raid came after a Channel 2 Investigation Tuesday night in which we showed you how a Houston tow company with a Safe Clear city contract is accused of gouging drivers, sticking them with illegal bills for thousands of dollars more than they should pay.
USA Auto Collision Center is a Safe Clear tow company, contracted with the city of Houston to move stalled and cars off of the freeways in a 6-mile stretch of the 610 South Loop between Highway 288 and I-45. But Channel 2 Investigates discovered the owner of the company, Richard Gonzalez, has a lengthy criminal history that includes insurance fraud and felony theft.
The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation is in the process of revoking the license of a storage company called Stan's Wrecker, Inc. owned by Gonzalez on the same Almeda Genoa lot as USA Auto Collision Center. It has fined Gonzalez $183,000 since 2014 for alleged violations of towing and storage laws.
More than 55 consumers have filed complaints in recent months, alleging that when USA Auto Collision Center towed their vehicles to Stan's Wrecker, they were charged thousands of dollars in unlawful fees. Almost all of the consumers say that employees of Stan's told them they had to sign documents to allow an adjuster from their insurance company to inspect the vehicle. What they were actually signing were documents authorizing the company to tear down their vehicles and charge them thousands in fees.
Gonzalez and a USA Auto employee named Ruben Rendon were handcuffed and taken to the city jail. Criminal charges against both are pending.
A spokesperson from Mayor Sylvester Turner's office sent the following statement:
"The charges and the raid are the result of an HPD investigation that has been underway for some time. In conjunction with that, the City legal department is in the process of taking action to prohibit the company from continuing to operate as a Safe Clear contractor. If tighter regulations are necessary to adequately protect consumers, then we will do just that. Those who do business under the City's name have to operate with integrity."
In addition to HPD undercover officers, there were investigators with the Harris County District Attorney's Office, the Department of Public Safety and the National Insurance Crime Bureau. They spent more than eight hours at the business collecting evidence.
The gate at USA Auto was locked Thursday evening, but a spokesperson from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulations said both Stan's Wrecker and USA Auto Collision Center has active licenses to operate. TDLR representative Susan Sanford said while the state is moving to revoke the license of Stan's, Gonzalez is appealing the move. Sanford said Gonzalez is entitled to due process of law and the matter is currently in litigation.