I-Team: Call Gives Muscle to Allegations Against Taxicab Authori - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Call Gives Merit to Allegations Against Taxicab Authority

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LISTEN: phone call between Chris Rivers and Ruben Aquino (WARNING: The language in this call may be offensive)

Ruben Aquino Ruben Aquino
Chris Rivers pictured on the right. Chris Rivers pictured on the right.

LAS VEGAS -- Taxi drivers who take passengers on longer than needed routes cost Las Vegas visitors some $15 million each year, according to a legislative audit.

Longhauling enforcement is the job of the Nevada Taxicab Authority, but Taxicab Authority officers -- and taxi drivers -- have long complained that the Taxicab Authority is under the thumb of the taxi companies they supposedly regulate.

Now, there's a tape of a secretly-recorded conversation that gives new life to old allegations. The recording is the result of what might be called a butt-dial, the not so technical term for it. It is an embarrassment for the Taxicab Authority, which has heard similar allegations for years. It's reminiscent of former Taxicab Authority officer Scott Lewis who was fired in 2008, he says, because he was writing too many tickets for longhauling.

Lewis continued to spill inside information about the Taxicab Authority and was even hit with criminal charges that were later dropped. Now, something similar has happened to other officers who say they merely want to enforce the law.

Every day, taxi drivers fleece Las Vegas visitors by taking them the long way. Undercover investigations over the past five years by the I-Team found that more than half of taxi drivers head south out of the airport, into the tunnel, before turning around and heading for the Las Vegas Strip. It adds as much as $10 per ride.

When Taxicab Authority administrator Charles Harvey took the top job in 2011. He said longhauling would be his top priority. Recently, the authority made good on that pledge by posting fare information so passengers know when they are being victimized.

"We are going to start with strict enforcement of existing laws," Harvey said in a June 2012 interview.

His crackdown began with checkpoints at McCarran International Airport. Citations issued to drivers increased dramatically through the rest of that year, but suddenly nosedived that December to almost none. And for most of 2013, the number of tickets for longhauling was down by two-thirds.

"There is no coincidence between the two," said attorney Robert Draskovich.

He knows one reason why the citations dropped in December. That's when the Taxicab Authority started investigating his client, officer Joe Morgan, along with Morgan's partner, James Dudley, and a third Taxicab Authority officer, Mike Kelly.

Those three were the most prolific longhauling enforcers in the Taxicab Authority, but when a cab company executive complained to the authority about Morgan and Dudley, they were suspended. Months later, Morgan called his boss enforcement chief Ruben Aquino to check on the case. Aquino wouldn't talk about it, but somehow his phone line remained open after the call.

"Apparently chief Aquino did basically what he called a 'butt dial,' dialed my client's phone. There is a 37 minute conversation he is having," Draskovich said.

It's not clear how, but Morgan made a recording of the conversation chief Aquino had with a Taxicab Authority investigator named Chris Rivers. The two men were discussing the confidential investigations of Morgan and Dudley, as well as other sensitive topics.

READ: Full transcript of phone call provided to 8 News NOW
(The content of this transcript may be offensive to readers.)

Aquino: "Morgan has representation."
Rivers: "Not Morgan, but Dudley.
Aquino: That's what I'm saying. Morgan has representation."
Rivers: "No, he's fine. He's on paid leave. Morgan's fine."

Appalled that his personnel matter was being discussed with Rivers, Morgan filed a complaint with the Taxicab Authority. Officer Mike Kelly made copies of the tape and sent them via a false email address to state officials and others, in part, because the conversation also focused on the influence taxi companies have on the Taxicab's longhauling enforcement.

Aquino: "We're governed by the Dept. of Business and Industry, but we oversee the cab owners and certificate owners who oversee our day-to-day operations."
Rivers: "But we can't go out there and be (expletive) heavy-handed."
Aquino: "Because all the drivers can't get no employees that wanna work and make no money. We're not as aggressive as Metro is. Metro is aware they are running crazy..."
Rivers: With Metro, you got some (expletive) running that squad. ... He lets his squad run amok, they're gonna be heavy-handed or lazy."

Draskovich says, that instead of addressing the violation of Morgan's privacy or the larger issue of cab companies exerting control over Taxicab Authority enforcement, the agency went after the whistle-blowers.

Mike Kelly was charged with a misdemeanor for using a fake email address to send out the tape. Morgan was charged by the attorney general's office with two felony counts related to wiretapping.

"This isn't like he is putting secret devices inside his phone and hearing secret conversations, which is where the statute is meant to apply. The chief accidentally called my client and then subsequently had an inappropriate conversation about him," Draskovich said.

Draskovich says it seems clear the investigation of Morgan was retaliatory.

"I mean, you break the rules, you are caught doing it, then you charge the person, who claims it, with a felony, who catches you breaking the rules. It makes no sense whatsoever."

No one from the Taxicab Authority would talk to the I-Team for the story. The Taxicab Authority wanted the I-Team to submit written questions. The authority released a statement that any allegations that the cab companies pressure or influence the agency's enforcement is "absolutely false and without merit."

The spokesperson said the Taxicab Authority said it fully investigates all longhauling complaints adding that there are many factors that may affect the number of citations that are issued.

In a side note: Scott Lewis, the fired Taxicab authority officer who has been fighting for five years to get his job back, recently won a ruling before the Nevada Supreme Court and has not given up.

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