Did Ron Sims Play Favorites With Cabbies?

Drivers are crying foul and filing suit.

In a bland, one-story office park in Tukwila, at the end of a winding road, sits a parking lot with more than two dozen spanking-new Toyota Priuses. Topped with taxi signs, they gleam with fresh paint—a vivid grass-green on the body with a green-and-white-checked border. The logo on the cars says: Green Cab.The cars belong to an association of Ethiopian drivers who, until last month, thought they had a lock on approximately 50 new taxi licenses being issued by King County. The drivers took out home-equity loans and spent $2.8 million in start-up costs, according to their leader, as they prepared to launch the new green fleet, which was supposed to be not only more environmentally friendly than current cabs, but more labor-friendly as well: The association had signed an agreement with the Teamsters union to allow collective bargaining.But that picture of supposed progress has since been blown up in a wave of suspicion, lawsuits, and recriminations. The rest of the local drivers have responded with outrage to the county plan, first announced in October. They lambaste the county for funneling the licenses directly to Green Cab—whose members have given generous donations to King County Executive Ron Sims and other county officials—without any chance for others to bid. Lawsuits have been filed, and a King County court commissioner issued a restraining order against the county's move last month. In the face of the protest, Sims' staff has quickly backed down, claiming it was all a misunderstanding, and has agreed to allow other groups of cabbies to pitch for the new licenses.But even now, many feel the fix is in and Green Cab will still come away with the prize—the first new licenses released by the county in 17 years. Typically such licenses sell for between $150,000 and $350,000 when traded among cabbies. These will be given away essentially for free. But the drivers have only until April 8 to make their case, as the county hastily issued a request for proposals. Under the terms of the RFP, drivers have to buy pricey hybrids—a million dollar or more proposition—which, as it happens, the Green Cab guys already own.In a conference room at a King County administrative building, Jim Buck, the overseer of taxi regulation for the county, was surrounded by 100 irate drivers at a meeting last week."How in the world could any association be able to make a proposal that's remotely responsive in two or three weeks?" asked Douglas Titus, a West Seattle lawyer representing a group of 40 taxi drivers."I think it can be done, but I'm not a driver so I don't know," responded the mild-mannered Buck, wearing a brown corduroy jacket and bifocals and looking exceedingly pale amid the East Africans and Indians, some of them in colorful turbans, who dominated the room in a tightening circle around him. Ridiculing laughter erupted, and not for the first time."Excuse me, were you involved in the award of licenses to Green Cab?" asked a fellow in a black cap."Yes, I was," Buck conceded."Then you should excuse yourself. Without a lawsuit we would not be here today.""Does anyone have any doubt that this is a recipe for Green Cab?" shouted another man in a green skullcap to the crowd."No! No!"A mustached Somali named Saed Raigal jumped up and called for a two-week strike. "OK? Promise? Nobody working tomorrow," he said, madly waving his arms."Yes! Yes!"And with that, and more chaotic shouting in a mix of languages, the meeting messily broke apart under the eye of a just-arrived security guard. While the strike never materialized, the furor continues.Sims vehemently denies that the assignment of the leases to Green Cab, without any RFP or other application process, had anything to do with the roughly $20,000 in contributions given him during his most recent re-election campaign by drivers associated with Green Cab. "There was no tit for tat," he says. "I don't operate that way."Yet something seems amiss about the way the process unfolded, and the county's explanations have only added to the mystery. In a Feb. 1 letter to King County Council Chair Julia Patterson, Sims said that the county was now putting out an RFP because "since this announcement [that Green Cab was getting the licenses], additional groups have expressed interest in participating" (emphasis added).Yet, according to Joe Blondo, president of the Alliance of Taxi Associations, the bigger and better funded of the two groups suing the county, once the county issued notice in May about a test program offering new licenses, "everyone jumped on it." Drivers furiously began forming associations to apply for the licenses and, in some cases, formed detailed business proposals.More than five dozen responses came in to the county's request for comment, according to documents obtained through public disclosure by Blondo's Alliance. Blondo, a veteran part-time taxi driver who is one of the few native-born Americans in the industry, submitted a proposal on behalf of the newly formed 21st Century Taxi Company, which comprises some 40 members. "All of this is a bit confusing," he wrote in a cover letter to the county. "Does this mean, after the surveys from the various associations arrive, that one or more associations will be chosen to submit formal bids?"He wrote that he had investigated hybrid cars and settled on the Toyota Sienna as his preferred choice. He was also scouting taxi lots, looking into financing, and proposing a color scheme of "light blue (sky blue, robin egg blue) and crème."A group of 40 Indian-born drivers calling themselves the Seattle Washington Taxi Association also expressed interest and hired Titus to help. He, too, couldn't quite figure out what was going on. Though he repeatedly called county officials, he says, "I was unable to obtain any information about the process."Also submitting was Tigabie Tekeba, on behalf of Green Cab, whose proposal was highly detailed and confident. Attached was an agreement with the Teamsters Local Union No. 117 that promised the company would remain neutral as drivers organized into a bargaining unit. "We would like to immediately commence formal discussions with King County in order to finalize a contract," read the proposal.On Sept. 20, Sims' bureaucracy adopted an "administrative rule" laying out the conditions under which an association could obtain licenses under the test program. The very next day, the county sent a letter to Tekeba, informing him that his organization had been selected to receive the licenses and implement the program.Nobody else even had a shot at it. "We weren't taking applications," Buck says.The taxi industry seems to combine the worst aspects of the free market, state control, and serfdom, and the county has good reasons for wanting to reform it. The effort began in earnest three years ago as both Sims and the County Council began discussing new licenses for a small number of wheelchair-accessible vans. Drivers lobbied for a wider release of licenses.A license attaches to every taxi operating inside the county. (Taxis working inside the city limits need a separate Seattle license.) In 1991, to prevent a flooding of the market—which would make it impossible for individual cabbies to earn a living—the county set a license cap of 561, and the city set a cap of 667 at around the same time. The annual cost for the county license is just $450.But unlike in cities such as New York and Chicago, where the government sells taxi medallions, cabbies are free to buy and sell these licenses among themselves, often going through unofficial brokers at the cab companies with wide networks in their immigrant communities. This open market is completely unregulated. Licenses sell for up to $350,000 because of the limited supply. As a result, few immigrants can afford to own a license, and instead are forced to "lease" a taxi from someone who does."They're at the mercy of those that control the licenses," says County Council member Larry Gossett.During a series of public hearings in 2005, the council heard testimony from a couple of dozen drivers who felt abused by the current system and wanted licenses of their own."We have families. We don't have benefits. We don't even have a guarantee to drive a year or six months," said a driver named Getasun Tsegaye. "This would be an opportunity to drive for ourselves.""It's your duty to break this monopoly. Level the playing field," urged another, Hadj Benzerrouki.The county's Buck recalls hearing testimony from one driver whose lease was suddenly canceled when the taxi owner's relative came to town and wanted to drive instead.Tekeba testified more than once. He urged the council to give licenses to his organization (then known as the American Taxicab and Disabled Services Association), which would both take care of workers and provide better service to customers. "We want to establish a new way of doing business," he said.The council ended up passing legislation, sponsored by Gossett, that authorized Sims to release taxi licenses that had "reverted" back to the county's control for reasons such as disuse or an owner's death. Not wanting these licenses to be part of the problematic open market, the council specified they could not be sold. The ordinance also called for the executive to release the licenses through an RFP or a lottery.Buck, a member of Sims' staff, says he came up with details of the plan. He determined that the new licenses would go not to individuals but rather to an "association," one that hired drivers as employees with full benefits and the right to unionize. In order to "level the playing field," the association's members would have to be people who did not already own licenses. And the taxis would have to be electric hybrids. The county reserved the right to recall the licenses if the program didn't work out as planned.Last September, after two short comment periods of a week or two, Tekeba's group got the nod.Buck says he chose Tekeba because he knew him to be "very committed and capable and qualified." "We believed we had the authority to make the selection" without an RFP or other application process, he says. Buck relies on a subclause in the ordinance whose wording is the subject of the current lawsuits against the county.It's clear that the council's intent at the time was otherwise, however. Gossett today says he doesn't remember the details. Perhaps because this is such a hot issue, numerous phone calls to other council members went unreturned."I don't tell the bureaucracy what to do" was Sims' response, when asked in an interview how Green Cab was selected.If you do a search of Sims' campaign contributions by occupation, and plug in the words "taxi driver," you will find a surprisingly long list. In the 2004–05 election cycle, when Sims last ran for re-election and the county began talking about releasing new licenses, contributions by taxi drivers totaled $21,500. The majority of those donations came from individuals bearing the same name as Green Cab partners, according to a list Blondo's Alliance obtained through public disclosure. At least a couple of those donors exceeded the $1,200-per-election maximum required by law.Doug Ellis, assistant director of the state Public Disclosure Commission, which has jurisdiction over county campaigns, says his agency didn't investigate the matter because it only responds to complaints and received none.But in 2006, acting on a tip, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission fined Tekeba's group $4,500 for what it found to be illegal campaign contributions to former County Council member Dwight Pelz, who was then vying for a City Council seat. According to the commission's executive director, Wayne Barrett, suspicions were raised by the "nice round number" of total contributions from American Taxicab members—$5,000. "That and the fact that all the contributions were on the same day, they were all at the maximum [level of contribution allowed], and all of the [contributors] hadn't been involved in donating before." Those facts suggested that the donations might have been orchestrated—and perhaps paid for—by one party, which would violate limits on how much any one party could donate.As in the infamous Strippergate scandal of 2003, in which the owners of Rick's in Lake City bypassed the limit on individual campaign gifts by secretly funding the donations made in other people's names, the commission determined that American Taxicab had skirted the then-$650 city cap by funding the individuals who donated to Pelz. American Taxicab argued at the time that donors were merely "borrowing" money from a $5,000 contribution each had previously made to the organization. But the commission still deemed it a violation.Now chair of the Washington State Democrats, Pelz declines to comment on the matter and was not himself implicated in the commission's finding. Pelz was a vocal supporter of the 2005 taxi ordinance, though not the only one. Council member Pete von Reichbauer, who during hearings had mentioned his affinity for taxi drivers, given time he had spent in East Africa, also received thousands of dollars in donations from American Taxicab.Since it only oversees city elections, Barrett's commission did not look into contributions by American Taxicab members to von Reichbauer or Sims. Von Reichbauer did not return a phone call seeking comment. Tekeba has been suffering from an unspecified medical condition, according to his lawyer, and was unavailable for comment.But for many observers in the taxi industry, it's an open-and-shut case that Green Cab got the nod because of its campaign donations. "Everyone knows they went through the back door," says Nirmal Pannu of the Seattle Tacoma International Taxi Association (STITA), which has the contract with the Port of Seattle to serve incoming passengers at Sea-Tac."The way this thing was handled," adds Orange Cab manager Tadele Fassil, "it makes cab drivers feel like they are back in the Third World."For many in the taxi industry, Tigabie Tekeba and his Green Cab members seemed to come out of the blue. "How did [the county] find these people?" asks Belai Motuma, a former Ethiopian schoolteacher who owns nine cabs and helps manage Yellow Cab's operation.But Tekeba had made himself a familiar face to government officials, and he came armed with lawyer and lobbyist.He and the members of his group had a sympathetic story to tell. He recounts it in a recent e-mail he sent to Leonard Smith, organizing director for Teamsters Local 117, his lobbyist Tim Hatley, and an attorney at the firm that represents him. Written as Green Cab's hold on the licenses was slipping, the e-mail was designed to urge its recipients to work harder, Hatley says."Our lives and our families' lives have been destroyed before by Communist government officials in Ethiopia," it reads. "They took our properties, killed our families and kicked us out of the country. Some of us had been in jail for 10 or more years."When we finally got a chance to come to America, we thought we were out of our past miseries." Instead, he writes, they became part of a taxi industry that is "abusive, monopolized, corrupted and riddled with so much crime." He says they made an average of $4.75 an hour and worked "16 hours a day, seven days a week....Then five years [ago] we started to challenge that."Smith met him around that time, and says Tekeba had been talking to various labor officials about his beef with the industry, which focused on the lock on licenses and exploitation by owners. That matched Smith's view that the license structure set up by the government was "legalizing indentured servitude" of drivers.To council member Gossett, Tekeba came across as "a very, very, very nice guy—very well educated—somebody who would be sincerely accountable to workers." Tekeba got a B.A. from the University of Washington in 1998 and worked for a time as a "community builder" for the Seattle Housing Authority. At the same time, he drove a STITA taxi, according to legal documents.In 2004, he sued SHA unsuccessfully for discrimination, claiming he was underpaid. His attorney was Alfoster Garrett Jr., the onetime head of the NAACP's Seattle branch who faces an ongoing disciplinary case with the state bar over allegations of financial misdealings and other improprieties in his practice. Tekeba and Garrett also sued the city, demanding that it release more taxi licenses. They lost that case, too. (Though the city recently announced plans to make licenses available.)So Tekeba turned his attention, as far as taxis went, to the county. This time, he had the help of the Teamsters, an influential political force that, according to Smith, had long looked for a way to organize the industry. "I'd go around and try to lobby so these guys would have a shot at getting these licenses," Smith says. Tekeba also hired Hatley to help. Hatley had previously worked for 10 years at the county, including as a policy adviser for Sims.Apparently, there was a meeting of the minds. Yet it's questionable whether the economic model on which they settled is preferable to most people in the industry.Certainly, current license owners don't like it. Just ask the local taxi magnate."It's a communist idea," says Lema Woldegiorgis, a mustached 53-year-old who favors baseball caps and checked shirts. Woldegiorgis emigrated here from Marxist Ethiopia in 1984. After working as a taxi mechanic for a few years, he bought his first licensed taxi in 1987. Because he was a mechanic, he says, he was able to save money when he had car problems by doing repair work himself. He bought more and more licenses and taxis, and by 1993—paying, he says, no more than $9,000 per license—he'd accumulated 50 licensed cabs, the most of anyone in this region.A multicar owner like Woldegiorgis no longer has to drive. His cars are cash cows, available for both night-shift and day-shift leases. Craig Leisy, who oversees taxi regulation for the city, estimates that owners make between $15,000 and $18,000 a year per car after paying costs like insurance and dispatch fees. That would put Woldegiorgis' annual income from his taxis at between $750,000 and $900,000.Woldegiorgis leases his cabs through the Yellow Cab fleet, and according to city records, he is also an owner of Puget Sound Dispatch, the company that manages much of Yellow Cab's day-to-day operations. (The structure of the taxi industry seems designed to mystify, with brand names such as Yellow Cab controlled by dispatch companies and individual taxi owners.)He has diversified, too, into other businesses, including a gas station in Fall City, where he lives, and a custom halal slaughterhouse on his 10-acre property there. Customers come to slaughter their own lambs and goats in accordance with their religious principles.With the success it has given him, it's no wonder that Woldegiorgis would want to keep the system the way it is. Through Yellow Cab, he is part of the Alliance that is suing the county and has shown up at city and county meetings devoted to the issue of new licenses.But less exalted owners, like Gurmindor Kahlon, also oppose the county's plans. Kahlon, who owns but one taxi, sees the distribution of new licenses as a threat. A bearded, gentlemanly former prosecutor from India who wears a silver bangle on his wrist, Kahlon came to this country in 1986 amid a Sikh separatist movement that had led to roiling violence in his home state of Punjab. After a long stint in New York, where he opened a liquor store, he moved to the Seattle area, which he thought would be better suited for his children, now 21 and 16. He lives in a spacious, if minimally furnished, Kent home located in a new development of the sort that is all over the suburbs.To afford it, he says, he drives his cab seven days a week, 12 hours a day, working most days from 4 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon—the "day shift"—allowing him to catch early morning trips to the airport. "The last time I took a vacation was three years ago," he says. Nobody in his family has medical insurance, not even his wife, who has a mysterious spinal condition that causes her too much pain to work, and who during a recent visit to their house lies on the floor watching satellite television from India, a position she says is good for her back.Using credit cards and a home equity loan, Kahlon bought his taxi license in 2001 for $140,000. Now, he and others worry that the introduction of new, virtually free licenses will undermine the value of their own on the open market. "I invest a lot of money in my license," Kahlon says. "Now it is worthless."Even the lease drivers, the ones whom the new county plan is supposedly designed to help, seem less than enthused. Given the choice between being exploited but their own boss, or being a unionized employee, they know which way they'd go.A few weeks before he calls for a boycott at the meeting with Buck, Orange cabbie Saed Raigal indicates his disapproval while waiting for fares at the downtown ferry docks. "I don't believe any taxi driver would jump from being self-employed to employee," he says. "If you're a half-hour late, you have to make a big excuse.""For me, I'm a Muslim," says Assan Mohammed, another Orange driver who joins the conversation. "I have to pray many times" a day. As his own boss, he can duck into a mosque any time he wants. If he's driving around the North End, he'll go to one in Northgate. He'll head for a Central Area mosque if he's downtown. He doesn't think he'd be allowed to do that as an employee.Fellow cabbie Jamil Ahmed adds that he went home at noon that very day to look after his kids while his wife went to a doctor's appointment. "That's why we choose this," he says. "It's more freedom. It's not the money."Some drivers say that a plan announced earlier this month by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is more to their liking. It also will release new licenses—a couple of dozen to start and more than 300 in time— and require more fuel-efficient cabs than the gas-hogging former cop cars that currently dominate the fleet. The city is also planning to prohibit the new licenses from being sold for five years, and during that time, the person owning the license has to drive the corresponding taxi full time.But the mayor's plan doesn't require drivers to become employees. "We are really impressed," says driver Bashi Hassan, eager for the chance of ending his $420-a-week, day-shift lease. Another driver expressed his enthusiasm off the record, for fear of his taxi lease being canceled by an irritated owner. However, the city hasn't yet said how the new licenses will be awarded.Meanwhile, given the furor displayed at last week's meeting, the county may have to rethink its rushed RFP. "Surely we'll discuss the tenor of the meeting," Buck says. Green Cab general manager Will Kelley declined comment, as did several Green Cab drivers. "Now Hiring!" proclaims the company's slick Web site, which can still be seen online (www.greencabseattle.com), and which also describes Green Cab as a "new and different taxi company" offering "the only all hybrid fleet" in the Puget Sound area. It's quite possible, though, that those shiny Toyota Priuses will be reclaimed, and the company seems as unhappy as those who attack it."We spent $2.8 million for start-up costs and [are spending] more than a half-million dollars a month for ongoing costs," Tekeba writes in his e-mail to Hatley. To do so, he says, Green Cab members used 15 of their homes to get bank loans. "We lost our families and properties two times before in Africa," he continues, referring to his members' experiences not only in Ethiopia but as refugees in the Sudan. "Now it appears that we are losing our families and properties for the third time in America by County government officials." His members' response, according to Tekeba: "They would rather that these officials come and kill them."nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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