Tuesday, February 16 2010 10:27 AM EST2010-02-16 15:27:03 GMT
Las Vegas visitors and locals alike are being long hauled -- taken the long way by cab drivers. The practice is illegal, but happens every hour of every day, right under the noses of the state officers who are supposed to protect the public.More>>
Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Photojournalist Matt Adams
If you've ever taken a cab to or from McCarran International Airport, you may have been taken for a ride that cost you more than it should have. Long hauling is when drivers chose longer routes that rack up a higher charge on the meter.
LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- A police officer fired by the Taxicab Authority says he's been ordered to shut up or else.
Whistleblower Scott Lewis alleges that the Nevada Taxicab Authority is controlled by private cab companies who stifle any enforcement against so-called long hauling. But the agents who heard his complaint warned Lewis that spilling the beans on his bosses could lead to trouble. The exact phrase used by the state agents is that spilling the beans on the bosses is like poking a rattlesnake with a stick. And it looks like they're right.
The practice of long hauling, that is, when cab drivers take passengers the long way around, cost visitors perhaps millions of dollars a year because they happen every day, every hour. Current and former taxi officers say enforcement is a joke because the cab companies call the shots at the Taxicab Authority.
"When we would do the long haul enforcement, we would stop them right here at this stop sign," said Scott Lewis. a former airport control officer.
Lewis wanted to fight crime, even small crimes like long hauling, which is when taxi drivers take the long way. In addition to Lewis, more than half-a-dozen current and former airport officers told us in an off-camera meeting that long hauling is rampant and that the Taxicab Authority does little to stop it. Lewis discovered this in 2007 when he went to work at McCarran International Airport. A driver who uses the tunnel to go from the airport to the strip adds Four-an-a-half miles to the drive.
It's not a violation if the passengers agree but the drivers Eyewitness News tested never bothered to ask. By our count, more than 100 cabs per hour appear to take the long way. When Lewis started writing tickets, his bosses objected.
"That was discouraged. At times they would let us do it, but they would make us do it on foot," he said.
The Taxicab Authority previously had two vehicles at the airport for its officers to use. But when Lewis and fellow officers used them to nab long haulers, the cars were taken away.
Former airport sergeant Larry Johnston says it's preposterous.
"You are running after a cab down at the departures curb or down at arrivals curb, trying to stop them. It led to comical situations," Johnston said, adding it was also dangerous, "You jump in front of a cab and try to stop them, they will run you over."
Taxi administrator Gordon Walker says the cars were removed a few years ago because an officer was using them back then to cite private vehicles. The cars are still gone, but long hauling is a top priority he says.
"We have made it, since I have been here, our number one priority because it just angers me our drivers would do that to our visitors," said Walker.
The Taxicab Authority stages its own stings, plus checks meters when cabs arrive at hotels. Former officer Johnston says it's purely for show. He became disgusted because he would write citations for glaring long haulers and they'd be tossed in the trash by his supervisor without any investigation. He remembers how his boss handled one citation he wrote late at night.
"He most likely picked up the ticket on the way into work that morning. The ticket was written at 2 or 3 in the morning and it was voided by 7 a.m." Johnston said. He complained, and says they found a reason to fire him. The same happened to Scott Lewis. He told us his boss ordered him to stop writing tickets for long hauling or it would be his job. Lewis went to the Nevada Division of Investigation to tell them the Taxicab Authority is corrupt and is taking directions from cab companies. The state agents advised him to keep his mouth shut.
"He was told by various law enforcement officers to look the other way when a crime was committed," said Greg Whicker, attorney for Scott Lewis.
Talking to outside investigators led to big trouble for Whicker's client. Lewis has been accused of 29 different infractions ranging from insubordination to misusing his radio to wearing a gun inside the dispatch area.
The lawyer thinks the agency is piling on infractions to destroy his credibility. More astonishing are the remarks of the NDI agents who interviewed Lewis about his whistleblower allegations.
According to the transcript, they told him, among other things that he should get rid of his lawyer, not talk to the media, that he should let it all go, be quiet, and shut the 'eff' up. They added that if his bosses ask Lewis to quote 'pick up a pile of dog shit and eat it" he should say yeah and ask if they have sprinkles for that.
"Anything they can find to discredit Mr. Lewis, they are looking for," Whicker said.
"I mean we understand that when you write a ticket, someone is going to complain but when the actual cab company has a hand in your business and can influence your supervisors, that is a very scary thought," said Lewis.
George Knapp: "Is there any circumstance in which somebody working at the airport would be told to back off enforcing long hauling?
Gordon Walker: "Absolutely not. The contrary would be true. If that had happened, there is something definitely wrong and I would have taken action."
In 2008, the Taxicab Authority received around 500 complaints about long hauling. Out of the 500 cases, 71 drivers were cited, less than 20 percent. Gordon Walker says the numbers this year are looking better.
The termination of Scott Lewis has become a very complicated case because so many allegations have been raised by his former employer. The deputy attorney general who represents the Taxicab Authority, in response to Scott's request for whistleblower status, argued that he doesn't qualify because the allegations he has raised are "not a matter of public concern."