HOUSTON - Five employees of a Houston towing company face up to 20 years in prison, accused of scamming customers out of thousands. Consumer expert Amy Davis first shed light on the allegations against USA Auto Collision Center three weeks ago. With the help of city council members, the owner scored a valuable contract, then investigators say he stuck drivers with exorbitant fees. Even after a police raid, city council delayed a vote to end the contract.
A Channel 2 investigation gets results. Houston City Council members voted unanimously to cancel the city's Safe Clear contract with USA Auto Collision Center and Richard Gonzalez.
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Channel 2 Investigates found more than $35,000 USA Auto Collision owner Richard Gonzalez gave to city council members since 2011. After members voted to give him the Safe Clear contract in November, Gonzalez got access other constituents did not. In March, when Gonzalez felt Houston Police were treating him unfairly, Councilman Dwight Boykins, who took $2500 from Gonzalez in 2013, called a closed door meeting in his council office with an HPD chief, lieutenant, sergeant and Gonzalez so the business owner could complain about another HPD investigator. Boykins maintains, even after that meeting, he didn't know about all of the consumer complaints against Gonzalez.
"What came out in that meeting?" Davis asked Boykins. "Did you hear HPD say we've got some issues with this company?"
"You know what? Hindsight, I heard them, but I didn't hear them," Boykins said. "I wish they would have said 'Councilman, can I visit with you in private?' You hear what I'm saying? Cause that would have stopped it then."
We now know HPD was in the middle of an undercover investigation of USA Auto and Gonzalez, and investigators could not reveal those details. Rice University Baker Institute Political Science fellow Mark Jones told Davis Gonzalez' contributions to council members make it appear some members are looking out for him over the taxpaying consumers.
"Really, you're putting people in a very vulnerable situation," Jones said. "When you get that influence, what suffers are the citizens and their rights sometimes."
Three weeks ago, consumer expert Amy Davis exposed the scheme the company was allegedly running to snag stranded drivers and stick them with outrageous and bogus bills.
She was there today for the vote at council.
The vote was supposed to happen two weeks ago, but Vice Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Davis delayed the vote. He opened up the discussion today by explaining that decision.
"Just like any contract, anytime there's a dispute, there are two sides. And we heard information from the other side. And we wanted to get our hands around it and to get an understanding," Jerry Davis said.
Jerry Davis, Councilman Dwight Boykins and Larry Green all accepted campaign donations from Richard Gonzalez, the owner of USA Auto Collision, and then Boykins spoke on his behalf to get him into the Safe Clear program.
"When you're given a second chance, you must play by the rules. When you are given a second chance, you have to play above and beyond any scrutiny. Play by the rules," Boykins said.
"This is not a second chance opportunity. This is an opportunity to do business legally and safely and to protect our citizens," Brenda Stardig, Council member District A, said.
And just like that Council cancelled the controversial Safe Clear contract we first exposed.
"I want to thank all of our newscasters. We appreciate that. Thank you, Amy," Jerry Davis said.
But there are still plenty of unanswered questions.
"I'm still not satisfied with how this slipped through and how we weren't made more aware of it," Michael Kubosh, Council member At-Large Position 3, said.
No one is talking about how a convicted felon with multiple businesses in poor standing with the state was allowed into the program. So we wanted to know how the mayor can assure the public that the other 16 Safe Clear companies are above board.
"Knowing that they were lapses in the vetting process, will you rebuild the Safe Clear program?" Davis said.
"I don't know about rebuilding it. We're looking at all of our possible options. But I can't tell you whether or not it's going to be rebid," Turner said.
Houston Police said they are delivering a signed letter from the chief today canceling Richard Gonzalez' Safe Clear contract. He has 30 days to cease Safe Clear towing operations. That ends on June 25.
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