When police officers respond to vehicle collisions in New York City, they often call a tow truck from a rotating list to help clean up.
The list is intended to make sure that the towing is fairly distributed among the companies licensed to perform the work. But in reality, according to four indictments unsealed Wednesday in Manhattan, nearly a dozen of the companies on the list were illegally controlled by a single enterprise.
The enterprise involved at least 17 people and 10 companies that were indicted on charges that included corruption and conspiracy in connection with what the district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., described as a classic scheme to enrich themselves and maintain “a violent, corrupt and nearly complete monopoly” on the towing business.
“If you were involved in a collision between June 2015 and December 2017 and received assistance from a towing company,” he said at a news conference, “you were most likely an unwitting customer of an illegal enterprise that dominated New York City’s towing business.”
Mr. Vance filed a separate asset forfeiture lawsuit to recoup about $20 million from the defendants, who, led by Daniel Steininger, came to dominate by buying several towing companies and using the licenses to gain a spot on the rotating list. Mr. Steininger’s sister, Karen, acted as the bookkeeper and helped to conceal the purchases from the Department of Consumer Affairs, which licenses towing companies, according to the criminal indictments.
“The companies had different names, the companies had different logos, and listed owners,” Mr. Vance said. “But they were in effect fronts and shell companies from the Steininger Enterprise.”
To beat competitors, Steininger’s workers listened to the police radio to locate collisions, then sent trucks rushing toward the accident scenes, a practice known as chasing.
If a competitor’s tow truck arrived at the same time, Mr. Steininger, who lives on Long Island, encouraged his drivers to “show some force” and “cause a ruckus,” Mr. Vance said. In a tactic called “blasting,” his tow truck driver would strike the competitor’s truck with a crane as a warning, Mr. Vance said.
Mr. Steininger surrendered early Wednesday and was released on a $1 million bond. His lawyer, James Kousouros, said the indictment deals with relationships that Mr. Steininger and others developed over decades in the towing business.
“The fact that they know each other, the fact that they cooperated with each other, does not necessarily mean that they are criminally colluding with each other,” Mr. Kousouros said.
While not glamorous, towing is an essential service in New York that can be lucrative. Heavy-duty jobs, like pulling tractor-trailers off bridges, unloading their cargo and taking them in for repairs could net as much as $40,000 to $50,000 a job, Mr. Vance said.
Mr. Vance and the indictments accuse the Steininger Enterprise of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from insurance companies by filing fraudulent claims. The defendants were also accused of damaging some vehicles after the collision, a practice called “damage enhancement,” to get more money. Sometimes their auto repair shops billed insurers for work not performed, work that was performed but not necessary, and for old parts they passed off as new. Mr. Steininger encouraged his workers to “max out” claims, according to the indictments.
To obtain permits to do highway jobs, the Steininger siblings submitted competing bids to the Police Department under different company names to create the illusion of competition.
The scheme netted millions of dollars for the Steiningers and their co-defendants, who hid their riches by cashing insurance claims checks at check-cashing shops to avoid paying taxes, according to the indictment.
Mr. Vance said the authorities uncovered the scheme after the Police Department raised concerns about receiving fraudulent invoices.
Mark Peters, the commissioner of the Department of Investigation, issued recommendations for the Department of Consumer Affairs to review and strengthen licensing requirements for towing companies, increase the frequency of inspections, and conduct more thorough background checks on owners and employees.
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