Police board seeks towing probe

Saturday, September 20, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis police department and its board are seeking expanded investigations, using federal, state and internal resources to look into whether a contracted towing firm shorted the city of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Acting police chief Stephen Pollihan said the police board asked the U.S. attorney's office in St. Louis on Thursday to widen its investigation into the handling of a former contract with St. Louis Metropolitan Towing.

They then on Friday asked State Auditor Susan Montee's office to audit department practices related to towing and the contract. An internal team with the police department will also start investigating Monday.

"I'm here to tell you that we have made mistakes," Pollihan said at a Friday afternoon news conference at police headquarters. He said he believes the department's mistakes were not doing enough financial auditing to make sure the right amounts of money were being received, and not criminal in nature.

A phone message left with the towing company, St. Louis Metropolitan Towing, was not returned.

Mayor Francis Slay said it was clear the police department's "internal business function broke down."

"It is becoming increasingly clear that what happened with the tow contract falls somewhere between an administrative breakdown and a serious crime against the police department and the taxpayers," Slay said.

"There is no way to sugarcoat this. There is no excuse for it. It is important that we find out what went wrong and fix it so it does not happen again."

For years, police contracted with St. Louis Metropolitan Towing to tow and impound cars. The contract was ended in July after police revealed that the firm allowed many officers -- and former police chief Joe Mokwa's daughter -- to borrow the seized vehicles, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. Mokwa retired amid concerns raised by the scandal.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Friday that the towing firm kept nearly $700,000 owed to the city, and that police failed to act on evidence in their own files. The newspaper said its investigation found that police leaders ignored auditors' advice to keep a close watch on the deal with St. Louis Metropolitan Towing.

Police said in a news release that contracts called for the towing company to pay some fees to the department and other fees to the city. Some payments were received, but the department said a recent comparison of towing records to towing payments "revealed the possibility that additional monies could be due."

The police board "has expressed its concern to investigators that there may have been violations of the contract's terms of payment," board president Chris Goodson said in the statement. "We have just as many questions as many of the citizens we represent. We want to determine what happened and how, to ensure that no entity, be it the Metropolitan Police Department or the city of St. Louis, was shortchanged."

Since ending the contract with St. Louis Metropolitan Towing, police have used the city's own towing services.

In a statement, Gov. Matt Blunt said, "The implications of missing money and improper conduct are extremely disturbing. It is crucial the Police Board investigate all misdeeds and take all necessary steps to ensure there are safeguards that both protect citizens from abuse and misuse of power and that ensure police business is conducted appropriately, ethically and legally."

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