What started out as complaints from drivers about wrongful parking fines has turned into an investigation of whether a company that uses metal boots to immobilize cars committed fraud against the city of Miami.
The public corruption unit of the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office is investigating Premier Booting, the main company that places boots around car tires, authorities confirmed.
Detectives are trying to determine whether the company altered the reports it sends to the city of Miami in order to pocket more money. The firm is required to pay the city $25 for every $89 it charges to remove the boots from illegally parked vehicles.
The investigation was first reported by Univision 23, news partner of El Nuevo Herald.
“The preliminary investigations show that this company made a deliberate attempt to avoid paying what it owed to the city,” Mayor Tomás Regalado told Univision 23. “It was not something overlooked. It was systematic, and that is fraud.”
A representative of Premier Booting did not respond to a request for an interview.
Regalado acknowledged that there have been failures in supervising booting companies, adding that the industry “is out of control.”
Univision 23 found that another company, Elite Booting, never sent the city any reports or payments since it starting operating in Miami in March 2016.
The company owed the city $186,000, which it paid only after Univision informed municipal officials about its findings. Municipal sources said Elite Booting claimed that it had not paid because it did not know where to send the checks. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Univision also documented questionable practices, such as signs that label private parking lots as public; boots placed on cars whose drivers paid to park but didn’t exhibit their receipts on their dashboards; boots on cars parked in spaces for disabled drivers even if they had permits; and parking tickets handed out without the required telephone number for the county’s consumer protection office.
Investigators raided the Fort Lauderdale offices of Premier Booting last week, seizing several computers, sources close to the case said. Premier is one of the four companies licensed to immobilize parked cars in Miami.
Univision 23 obtained copies of the reports that the four companies submit to the city police and financial departments and compared them to complaints sent to the television station by viewers. Five out of eight fines were not reported or paid to the city. All originated with Premier Booting.
Detectives are now auditing financial records to determine whether the omissions were intentional and if the company had submitted other false reports.
“I understand that there are always administrative errors, but if this conduct went on for a long time and totaled a lot of money, they would possibly face a criminal charge,” said Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes. “The companies get the right to work, if they pay money to the city. Not paying means not paying the public.”
Only one Miami police officer supervises the booting industry, and the department does not have a way of making sure the companies report all the fines they collect. Llanes said municipal authorities trust in “the good will and ethics” of the booting companies.
Premier Booting, which manages more than 20 parking facilities, reported to Miami that it deployed an average of seven boots per day in the last year. In contrast, Elite Booting, which operates only three parking facilities, reported placing 18 boots on cars per day during the same period.
City officials are now preparing changes in the regulations to exercise more control over the booting companies, including a ban on signs that advertise private parking lots as though they are public lots.
A LOBBYIST’S PROPOSAL
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro submitted a proposal to the government operations committee on June 14 that would allow booting companies that operate in unincorporated areas of Miami-Dade to increase their fines from $65 to $89. The committee is expected to consider the proposal Sept. 12.
Barreiro initially told Univision that his proposal was a response to complaints from shop owners about illegal parking, and indicated that the fine for removing boots had not increased since 1999. But Barreiro’s office could not provide copies of any complaints and later said the idea for increasing the fines came from lobbyist Ron Book, who represents Premier Booting.
Six days after he submitted his proposal, Barreiro, who is seeking the Republican nomination to succeed U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, received three $2,700 donations for his campaign. One came from Book, one from Book’s wife and one from Andrew Beachler, owner of Premier Booting. Barreiro said that was a coincidence, because he had launched his campaign only days before.
Barreiro told El Nuevo Herald that he supports the state attorney’s investigation, and will return the campaign donations if any charges are filed against Premier.
“I support fully investigating whether these companies are obeying all aspects of the law,” the commissioner said. He added that if there’s proof that crimes were committed, he hopes that “authorities will bring to bear the full weight of the law.”
Univision 23 reporter Erika Carrillo contributed to this report.