HOUSTON - Houston drivers are getting hit with huge bills and being forced to pay thousands of dollars or risk losing their vehicles. Channel 2 investigates the close relationship between the company accused of breaking the law and your city leaders who voted to give them more of your business. Consumer expert Amy Davis explains the loophole that is costing everyone with car insurance.
If your car breaks down or you crash on the South Loop anywhere between 288 and I-45, the wrecker coming to your rescue is from USA Auto Collision Center.
The city guaranteed it when the City Council awarded a contract granting USA Auto Collision Center first dibs along a 6-mile stretch under Houston's Safe Clear program.
"They shouldn't have that contract," driver Mary Tillis told Davis.
USA Auto Collision Center towed Tillis' car last May and stuck her with a bill for $2,994.66. Tillis said the wrecker driver insisted on towing her to a connected storage facility and once there, they took her car apart, charging her for what's called a "tear down."
"And I was like what?" Tillis said, recalling what she said when she saw that first bill.
Tillis is far from alone. Channel 2 Investigates discovered no less than 55 complaints from consumers just like her since 2013.
"I don't believe City Council understands the extent of the scam," said Ken Ulmer, chairman of the Houston Automotive Group. He says it's called "flipping."
"They prey on a consumer who's just gotten in an accident," said Ulmer. "And the word flipping literally means that they flip it from a regulated situation to a non-regulated situation."
When you're in an accident and police call a Safe Clear wrecker, the wrecker can only charge you $155.50 for the tow. Once you sign any documents approving other services, even unknowingly, you are no longer protected by city rules.
"That means the skies the limit," explained Ulmer. "They can charge you anything they want."
The owner of USA Auto Collision Center, Ricardo Gonzalez, pleaded guilty to insurance fraud in 2013 and felony theft in 2008. His last round of probation ended in 2014.
The state Department of Licensing and Regulation has fined his companies more than $183,000 for violations of towing and storage laws. But just last November, Houston City Councilman Dwight Boykins made a show of support for the company vying for that city contract at a public City Council meeting.
"Richard Gonzalez is a vendor in my district," Boykins said. "He has played by the rules. He has made mistakes like everybody else. And he's learned from them. And so we look forward, Mayor, to see him grow his business."
"Why did you recommend this business?" Davis asked Boykins. "Well, it wasn't recommending. You can't do that," he quickly replied. "I just ... I was supportive and appreciative that a small business in my district had an opportunity to become a prime."
Boykins said he assumed any business that made its way to the City Council had been vetted.
"I just don't understand how this happened," he told Davis.
Gonzalez owns three companies all on the same Almeda Genoa lot. USA Auto Collision Center has the city contract. Stan's Wreckers is a storage lot where the vehicles are towed. And there is an auto body shop on the same property.
When USA Auto tows the cars to the lot, consumers such as Patrick Lalor are led to a pay window marked "Stan's Wreckers" to sign documents.
"Once they have it on their premises, you can't get the car off," Lalor told Davis.
Lalor says employees told him he was only signing to rent a car. What he actually signed were documents transferring his Jeep to the body shop.
"This is a classic ripoff," Lalor said.
Lalor's final bill shows he paid $230 to transfer his truck from the storage lot to the body shop and another $230 to transfer it back, even though the two businesses are feet apart. We counted. There is literally 28 feet between the window for Stan's Wreckers and the front door of USA Auto Collision Center. Still, Houston police say the company with the Safe Clear contract, 28 steps in the other direction, owned by the same man, has a clean record.
"You're comfortable telling those consumers, 'Yes, this is who you should be using?'" Davis asked Lt. David Sauer of the HPD Auto Dealers Detail. "Well, like I said, the towing company and the criteria were established. There was not ... the vehicle storage facility was not combined with the towing aspect."
Gonzalez would not talk on camera. Neither would anyone with the city department that helped select Safe Clear companies. And while Mayor Sylvester Turner was not in office when Richard Gonzales got the contract, we found a photo of the two together and a total of $10,000 in campaign contributions Gonzalez made to Turner in his run for mayor.
We asked Turner if the contributions are a conflict of interest now that the company is under investigation, while under contract with the city. We still have not heard back from the mayor. If you think the city should end its contract with this company, contact your elected city leaders and let them know. In the meantime, if you ever need a Safe Clear tow, you should know you don't have to take your car where they want to tow it and you should never sign anything at the scene.