Alleged towing kickbacks land Miami cops in hot water

Miami commissioners paid little heed two years ago when, during a discussion about towing rates, Tim Del Rosal told them his towing company was losing money to pirate towing firms.

But police were paying attention.

And the problem wasn’t just pirate tow companies: Three Miami patrol officers and two public service aides have been relieved of duty on suspicion that they took kickbacks from towing companies that they directed to traffic accidents. Those companies had no tow contracts with the city.

Earlier this month, FBI agents and Miami police detectives, who launched the investigation after Del Rosal’s rant in 2013, confronted the five with evidence of their having accepted the kickbacks.

“Five people have been relieved of duty. And my understanding is those people are expected to be indicted,” said Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa.

Those officers and aides, investigators say, informed the rogue operators of the accidents instead of notifying the companies that contract with the city, then collected thousands of dollars from the tow truck companies they helped out.

Two of the three Miami cops gave confessions saying they took money, and one did not, the Miami Herald has learned, along with the public service aides. But none offered enough information to expand the investigation into other officers in the Miami Police Department, a law enforcement official told the Herald.

The three officers relieved of duty with pay have been identified as Michael Bode, Artice Peoples and Julio Ruiz.

Efforts to reach out to the officers’ union representatives were unsuccessful late Friday. Javier Ortiz, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, told Herald news partner CBS 4’s Jim Defede, who initially reported the alleged kickback scheme: “We’re waiting to see exactly what the allegations are.”

The law enforcement official said the officers' roles in the towing-kickback scheme was the “tip of the iceberg,” adding, “It’s so prevalent. It’s everywhere.”

The investigation has broadened to four other police officers in three other departments in Miami-Dade County.

Orosa wouldn’t name the tow truck companies believed to be involved in the kickback scheme. He said the joint operation between the FBI and his department was ongoing.

“There is an investigation involving police officers we have on duty,” he said.

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, dispatch 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. The total revenue in towing fees the city made last year wasn’t available late Friday. It’s believed to be in the tens of thousands of dollars.