Towing the Line
Salinas PD wants to axe Century Towing; owner says it’s dirty politics.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
The Salinas Police Department wants to boot Century Towing off its tow rotation for numerous contractual violations. But Century owner Angel Garcia Jr. says the move is retaliation for bringing to light something Salinas PD prefers to keep in the shadows– Garcia says officer Kevin Orepeza was in cahoots with another city tow firm.
The City Council will consider removing Century Towing from its tow program Nov. 18. Police say Century violated provisions of the city’s tow service franchise agreement, including using an unapproved driver and not providing proof of workers compensation insurance.
“This is the third time I’ve been threatened to be removed from my business,” Garcia says while sitting in his East Market Street office among a mess of paperwork and receipts.
Garcia says his problems began when Orepeza assumed oversight of the city tow program, which now rotates calls among eight companies.
Salinas police suspended Garcia from the department’s rotation in June 2005 after Orepeza discovered at least two franchise agreement violations. Orepeza wrote up Century again in August 2007 for not providing proof of workers comp, and for having an expired motor carrier permit. Officer Ian Titus discovered the Sept. 15 violation that led to the police department’s recommendation to axe Century Towing. Both officers are embroiled in a civil lawsuit filed by Garcia and his father, Angel Garcia Sr.
After the city rejected a claim made by the Garcias, the father and son on June 26 filed a lawsuit against the city, several interrelated tow companies and officers Orepeza and Titus, the former tow-program supervisor. The lawsuit claims Orepeza owned or operated a tow truck and conspired with California Towing and R & R Towing to remove competing tow firms from the rotation.
“I opened a big can of worms there,” Garcia Jr. says. “There are big grounds there for a conflict of interest.”
City Attorney Vanessa Vallarta declined to comment about Orepeza because it’s a personnel matter. She also wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit because the city hasn’t yet been served. Peace officer personnel records are generally exempt from the California Public Records Act. But according to a recent Salinas Californian article that cited a leaked city Grievance Board report, Orepeza was disciplined after he violated the department’s outside-employment policy by doing tow jobs for a business connected to California Transport.
California Transport hauls freight and heavy ag equipment, says owner Henry Jones, explaining that he used a company started by Orepeza and retired officer John Butz as a sub hauler. Jones says California Transport is separate from California Towing, which is part of the city’s tow rotation. “[Orepeza is] not connected to the towing,” Jones says. “I’m not benefiting from him doing that. I understand that Officer Orepeza didn’t pull a work permit, but that’s between him and the police department.”
Prescott Kendall, attorney for Century Towing, says Jones should have never done business with Orepeza. “You shouldn’t be employing the people who are in charge of overseeing you,” he says.
Kendall also alleges Orepeza may have lied under oath in December 2007 when, for an unrelated case, Orepeza testified he didn’t own a tow truck or have any interest in tow companies. Orepeza’s Campbell-based attorney Jonathan Jackal declined to comment.
R & R Towing is also named in Century Towing’s lawsuit, which accuses owner Mary Doughty and Jones of colluding with officers Orepeza and Titus. Jones says Doughty is his girlfriend, but they don’t share financial interests, and they have separate addresses and storage facilities.
Since California Towing does evidence towing for the police department, Jones says it’s natural that he is friends with officers he routinely works with. “All the good tow companies have working relationships with the officers,” Jones says. “Does that mean something illegal is going on? Absolutely not.”
Orepeza and Titus are no longer assigned to the traffic unit, which oversees the tow program, says Sgt. John Lynn. Jones says he doesn’t use Orepeza as a hauler anymore.
If the City Council removes Century from the rotation, the firm would be the fifth Latino-owned tow company removed from the rotation since 2002. Police say all of the firms violated contractual obligations. Lynn says the goal is to limit the number of city-approved tow companies to seven– although he quickly adds police are not targeting companies to pare down the firms.
Garcia, on the other hand, says it’s personal. He maintains police had it in for him once he made his grievances known: “They were going to look for anything possible to get me terminated.”