ST. LOUIS — Almost a year after the I-Team began investigating claims of missing cars and missing money at the St. Louis City tow lot, a member of the St. Louis Board of Alderman says that criminal charges may be coming.
An investigation by 5 On Your Side’s PJ Randhawa prompted a committee of aldermen to take a closer look at the tow lot’s operations. City leaders came to the conclusion in a recent meeting that the tow lot has been holding onto funds that should have been issued to the owners of cars that the city auctioned off.
“What we're finding out is it's pretty bad,” said Joe Vaccaro, alderman of Ward 23. “I've had people call me and say, ‘Joe, my car's been in the tow lot forever.’ And the tow lot will say, ‘The car's never been there.’”
Vaccaro is on a special committee of aldermen that has been checking out allegations that tow lot employees skimmed money off the sale of towed vehicles and enforced non-existent rules for how vehicles could be claimed.
“I believe there were 40 cars that they couldn't account for. They just vanished. And that makes you say, hmm,” said Vaccaro.
One of the biggest findings in the committee was that the tow lot kept money from vehicle auctions that is supposed to go back to the vehicle owner.
In a recent virtual meeting between the committee members and the streets commissioner, Kent Flake, Ward 3 alderman Brandon Bosley asked, “Does that mean after we auction that vehicle off, that these people don't get notified that their vehicle is auctioned and there is a possible surplus from the auction they could come pick up?”
Flake responded, “We do not, we just make the deposit.”
Bosley added, “That sounds like a policy we need to change.”
Ward 1 alderwoman Sharon Tyus says the money should go back to the vehicle owner.
“If we've recouped our fees or whatever it cost us, that money belongs to the owner of that vehicle," Tyus said. "It's interesting we don't have a procedure except to send it to an unknown account in the treasurer's office.”
The I-Team’s work over the past year exposed how the St. Louis City tow lot didn’t operate according to a rule book or manual, and many rules were barely documented or inconsistently enforced.
Viewers reached out for help after their vehicles were stolen and they were charged hundreds of dollars to get them back, contrary to a city ordinance. Vehicle owners who couldn’t afford the bill, could not supply the exact documents that the tow lot employees asked for, or found out about the locations of their cars late often learned that the city sold their vehicle at a regular auction that occurs at the lot.
Those vehicle owners were never informed that they could receive the proceeds of the sale minus whatever fees or fines they owed.
Vaccaro gave credit to the 5 On Your Side I-Team.
“Your investigation has prompted this," Vaccaro told Randhawa. "Your persistence is making sure it's an ongoing investigation.”
“At the end of this investigation, certainly there could be criminal charges,” he added.
Nick Dunne, a representative of the Mayor's Office, wrote in a statement, "The State Auditor's office is currently auditing the Streets Department, including the Tow Lot, as part of an ongoing citywide audit. We await the results of said audit and will review its findings when finalized."
Members of the committee expect the investigation to continue another two months at least. So far, they have heard the testimony of 10 tow lot employees and have the power to subpoena additional witnesses.