Tow truck drivers have been called a lot of unprintable names over the years in Miami and a federal case filed Friday won’t help things.
The FBI broke up what agents called a “pirate towing” racket, arresting four tow truck operators and two Miami police aides on bribery and fraud charges.
No Miami police officers were arrested in the take-down. But arrests of city police officers in this alleged scam — and possibly other cops involved in similar misconduct — are expected in the coming months, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
The four Miami tow truck operators — Jesus Tello, Reinaldo Martin Cruz, Ronald Alfaro and Michael Perez — are accused of paying tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to the city’s two public service aides, Aristides Paulino and Keri Dixon, according to an FBI criminal complaint.
In exchange for the kickback payments, the aides used official police information to steer the pirate tow truck operators to traffic accidents, according to prosecutor Anthony Lacosta, who filed the complaint.
“I felt overrun,” one driver told FBI agents in 2013, after he was ambushed by Tello following an accident in his Ford Edge on Dixie Highway. Tello was described in an affidavit filed with the complaint as the lead coordinator, who introduced the other tow truck drivers to the two public service aides, Paulino and Dixon.
Last year, Tello told investigators that he paid Paulino between $20,000 and $25,000 in bribes over two years and he paid Dixon between $100,000 and $150,000 in kickbacks over one year, according to the affidavit. Dixon, however, told investigators that she received only $6,000 from Tello, the affidavit said.
Tello’s defense attorney, Bruce Fleisher, declined to comment.
On Friday, all six defendants were granted $250,000 personal surety bonds. Their arraignments are scheduled for April 9.
The FBI’s anti-corruption squad, working with Miami and other police departments, launched the probe in 2013. The targets of the investigation include Miami police, but also Miami-Dade and other local police officers.
In December, three Miami patrol officers — Michael Bode, Artice Peoples and Julio Ruiz — and the two public service aides, Paulino and Dixon, were relieved of duty on suspicion that they took kickbacks from tow companies that they directed to traffic accidents.
Former Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa said then that the joint operation between the FBI and his department was ongoing. “There is an investigation involving police officers we have on duty,” he said.
Investigators say this is how the scheme worked: The city’s public service aides informed the pirate towing operators of traffic accidents instead of going through police dispatchers, according to the FBI affidavit. The tow truckers operators, which were supposed to be picked on a rotational basis under contracts with the city, used the insider information to beat other towing companies to the accident scenes.
The pirate towing operators — sometimes along with the city’s aides, Paulino and Dixon present — pressured the stranded car drivers to have their vehicles towed to certain body shops. They, in turn, boosted damages for fraudulent insurance claims, according to the affidavit filed by FBI special agent Donald Morin. The body shops then shared some of the profits with the tow truck drivers.
“After an accident, individuals are concerned with their well-being and the well-being of the other accident victims,” U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said, accusing the six defendants of taking advantage of them for “illicit profit.”
“The residents of Miami have a choice,” Ferrer said. “If you are in an accident and a tow truck operator that you have not called arrives, know that you have the right to refuse that operator’s service.”
Miami has contracts with eight tow truck companies that break the city into five sectors. The way it’s supposed to work is a person involved in a vehicle accident can call for a tow truck, or police can do it for them. If police make the call, a dispatcher contacts one of the eight companies to respond.
Though the rates vary, in the majority of the cases the contractor makes $92 each time it tows a car, and the city pockets $26.