HOUSTON - The owner of a Houston tow company and its employees are each facing the possibility of 20 years in prison for their alleged roles in organized criminal activity, sticking drivers with huge bills filled with bogus charges. But even after we exposed the scheme and the owner's criminal history, Houston City Council members continue to let him operate as an arm of Houston's Safe Clear program. Consumer expert Amy Davis wants to know why. What she's discovered about the owner's political connections is concerning.
"I notice on every news segment you say 'Turn around; don't drown,'" said Ronnie Hill.
He said it's why when he noticed high water on the roadways on his way home from work May 14, he drove his car up on a dry median.
"I was tired," he told Davis. "I'd been at work for about 12 hours."
Hill finally decided to wade home about six streets away. Less than an hour later when he returned, he says a USA Auto Collision Center tow truck had his Chevy Impala loaded up. The driver refused to release it without $155 in cash. Hill says the driver told him he would wait for him to get the cash from his house, but when he returned, the wrecker and his car were gone. He found it a couple of hours later at Stan's Wreckers on Almeda Genoa. But when Hill went to pick up his vehicle, an employee told him the bill was almost $300.
"I'm the head of my household," Hill said. "I pay all the bills. It kind of put me in a very rough spot, you know what I'm saying?"
But none of it would have happened if the Houston City Council had voted to cancel all of its towing agreements with USA Auto Collision and Richard Gonzalez two weeks ago. Channel 2 first explained the alleged scheme that has snarled dozens of drivers. USA Auto Collision Center, a company with a Safe Clear contract, tows stranded motorists off Houston freeways to its southeast Houston storage lot where drivers are duped into signing documents agreeing to outrageous fees.
"They said 'Oh, don't worry. These are standard fees,'" Helen Boyce recalled after she was in a car accident earlier this year. Boyce signed the documents that left her insurance company with a bill nearly $2,000.
Police raided the businesses two days after our investigation, charging owner Richard Gonzalez and fourof his employees with organized criminal activity. But one week later, Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Davis delayed the council's vote to cancel Gonzales' contracts.
"Do you feel like you're giving this business owner more chances than you're giving Houston consumers?" Davis asked the Mayor Pro Tem. "No," he replied. "What we're doing right now is making sure we do the right thing."
We now know Gonzalez has given Jerry Davis $3,000 in campaign contributions since 2012.
And in the last five years, the convicted felon has spread the wealth. Gonzalez gave $3,000 to former Mayor Annise Parker, $10,000 to Sylvester Turner in his run for mayor and more than $35,000 in donations to council members since 2011.
Councilman Dwight Boykins got $2,500 the year before he gave Gonzalez a public nod at council.
"Richard Gonzalez is a vendor in my district," Boykins said at a November meeting. "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."
Six months later, when Davis dredged up more than 55 consumer complaints against the tow company, Boykins said he knew very little.
"I don't know this company," Boykins told Davis. "I just know they're in my district."
When a company bids for a city contract, there is what's called a quiet or no contact period, where no one from the business is allowed to communicate with elected officials to persuade or influence their decision.
During that "quiet" period, USA Auto Collision sponsored Boykins' charity golf tournament in September.
"So I met him that way for the first time," Boykins told Davis.
But hold up. Three months before that, after the 2015 Memorial Day flood, Boykins' office announced "a partnership with USA Auto Collision to assist Houstonians whose vehicles have been damaged by the storm."
"This was after he was convicted of insurance fraud," Davis told Boykins.
"Which I didn't know. Let's be clear about this, Amy," he said.
And there's more. Boykins said he met Gonzalez for the first time at that September golf outing, but about 30 months before, in January 2014, Gonzalez appeared before the City Council when he was appointed to the Five Corners Improvement District Board. The southeast side district assesses and collects taxes from area businesses. Gonzalez was on probation for insurance fraud when he was appointed. And Boykins joked around like an old pal.
"I'm just concerned Richard, is this gonna prohibit us from playing golf?" Boykins asked him in an open City Council meeting. "Not at all," answered Gonzalez.
"No, that doesn't mean we played golf, Amy," Boykins said, when Davis asked him about the exchange. "I'm just telling you I hadn't played with him but that one time. And it wasn't a one on one. It was in a tournament. It was just a comment you make at council."
And his wasn't the only comment. Ed Gonzalez was mayor pro tem at the time.
"Mr. Gonzalez, good to see you. I've known you and your family for some time; and as Councilman (Larry) Green stated, you're a very good businessman in the area," the mayor pro tem said.
Then Green, who received $2,500 from Gonzalez in 2012, chimed in.
"And Richard, we've been working on this for awhile and I'm so pleased that you've decided to come on," Green said.
"You have known him for awhile?" Davis asked Green. "I've known him ... yeah, I've known him for a few years. He's been a supporter. I've known him," Green said.
When we stopped by the last Five Corners board meeting, Gonzalez was absent. The manager told Channel 2 Gonzalez is not welcome back.
This Wednesday, the council will once again to consider canceling Gonzalez's contract. Boykins told me he will vote in favor of canceling it. We will be there and let you know what happens.