City probes claims of parking-fine plot

Drivers say employee took cash, supplied forms for MVA tag renewals

August 08, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Baltimore officials are investigating claims that a former city worker cheated scores of drivers by pocketing cash in bogus deals that were supposed to give discounts on parking fines.

The parking fine collector -- whose name was not released -- issued paperwork to drivers who owed large parking fines so that they could renew their license plates with the state Motor Vehicle Administration, which is normally impossible without paying all fines, according to city officials.

But the residents later complained they had been ripped off -- often by hundreds or thousands of dollars each -- when the city notified them that their fines still existed and had grown by $16 per month in penalties.

"We are doing a civil and criminal investigation into what went on in the parking department," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. "Anyone who thought they got a `special discount' on parking fines should call us, because they may have been victims of a scam."

The employee, who quit last winter, had apparently been making under-the-table deals with people for "tag release" forms, city officials said. The scheme had been going on for four or five years.

Officials began investigating several months ago but have been slowed by reluctant witnesses who are worried they might be accused of participating in a fraud or bribery scheme, authorities said.

The city's finance department, where the employee worked for more than 20 years, is leading the investigation. Police are also investigating.

"We recently became aware of questionable activity by an employee in our parking fine section -- activity which we believe was a breach of our fiscal policies and procedures," Peggy Watson, finance department director, said in a written statement.

The investigation comes as the city is relying more heavily on aggressive penalizing of illegal parking as a major source of revenue.

Shortly before he left office in 1999, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke worked with City Council President Lawrence Bell to pass legislation doubling penalties on unpaid parking tickets, from $8 to $16 per month. The ordinance allows fines to escalate indefinitely, sometimes to hundreds of dollars for a $20 ticket.

The higher penalties have brought the city a windfall. The city collected $11.2 million in parking fines and penalties in fiscal 1999, $15.5 million in fiscal 2001 and a projected $16.3 million in fiscal 2003, according to finance department statistics.

"We raised the penalties, but of course if people pay on time they don't have any penalties," said Louise G. Green, chief of the city Bureau of Treasury Management.

In the scheme being investigated, drivers were allegedly victimized when they went to the city's Abel Wolman municipal building next to City Hall, where parking fines are collected.

The employee in question would ask people for a portion of their fines in exchange for tag release forms. The forms allowed the drivers to get license plate stickers. But the employee could not wipe the fines from the computer system, so the penalties would grow and come back to haunt the drivers, sometimes years later, when they had to renew license plates again, city officials said.

"We campaigned on a platform of `change and reform,' and this is one of the areas we are reforming," O'Malley said. "But it took us 2 1/2 years to catch this one."

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