KCBD INVESTIGATES: Towing company accused of offering customer kickbacks
LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - KCBD has new information on an investigation we have followed for more than a year.
In the fall of 2013, we launched an investigation into the towing practices of West Texas Lender Support, LLC.
KCBD requested the file on WTLS, a Lubbock towing company, from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. TDLR is the state agency that regulates all towing companies as well as many other professions that require a state license.
We received more than 3,500 pages of complaints, investigations, emails and sanctions against WTLS. Many of those complaints were generated after we ran a story on WTLS allegedly towing vehicles illegally from the National Flea Market on the Clovis Highway.
After going through TDLR's file, we also found what might be described as a smoking gun: the allegation of illegal kickbacks being offered to business owners for cars towed from their properties.
Former WTLS employee, Andrew Salinas, said he did make those deals with businesses. We interviewed Salinas last year. KCBD did not air that interview until this year, when the state could confirm a formal complaint was filed.
"It just sounded wrong," said James Grummitt, manager of Lubbock's Wild West.
Grummitt is the one who filed that complaint against WTLS after Salinas offered him a deal he said sounded too good to be true.
"His deal was he would pay me an additional $20 for every car that he towed off of my premises," said Grummitt.
In the TDLR documents we reviewed, Grummitt reported to the state that he was approached by Salinas on behalf of WTLS in 2013.
"We would just tell them are you in to make a little extra money? And after that, they are hooked," Salinas said.
When we interviewed Salinas in early 2014, he said it was easy money for the property owners who participated.
"As soon as we hooked our jaws to the car, they would automatically get 20 bucks. So, we would write them down, keep logs of everything that we owed every company and come Monday or Sunday we would write them a check," Salinas said.
He said at least six Lubbock businesses were making big money.
"Over $500," Salinas said.
More than $500 dollars a week.
"The majority of the companies, they were concerned it was illegal. I did state that it was illegal, but money talks in this world," Salinas said.
But money did not talk to Grummitt who said, "I declined his offer…I found out later that it was actually illegal and I just turned him in to the Texas licensing board."
Salinas said he was only following instructions by making the illegal offers.
"I was instructed to tell the companies that we would take the fall if anything were to happen, if any legal action were to be taken," Salinas said in that 2014 interview.
A TDLR investigator questioned the owner of WTLS, Randall Hurst, about the alleged kickbacks.
Hurst told the investigator, according to the state documents, that he fired Salinas when he learned about the kickback scheme.
When the state investigator asked for records of these illegal tows, Hurst said Salinas stole them, but Hurst also acknowledged that he had not reported the alleged theft to the police.
The illegal tows from the National Flea Market happened well after the date that West Texas Lender Support owner Randall Hurst said he fired Andrew Salinas.
The TDLR was unable to locate Salinas when they received the complaint from Grummitt, so no sanction was given. However, Grummit's complaint did lead to an onsite visit by a state investigator that resulted in other sanctions for multiple violations of TDLR regulations.
Our investigation took us all the way to Austin to speak with Susan Stanford, spokesperson for the TDLR.
Stanford told us this about the industry and WTLS, "Primarily, tow companies are compliant; they work with us. They are proud of their industry and they want to have a good reputation. We do have the odd company that we receive many complaints about. This particular company, he's not the norm, but he's also not abnormal."
Stanford confirmed that WTLS owner Randall Hurst has reached a settlement with the TDLR for other violations during towing and the impoundment process.
According to agreed orders, Hurst did not have the proper signage on both sides of the tow truck and failed to have the required license plate that includes the words "tow truck." Stanford confirmed Hurst paid the fine of $400 for that agreed order.
Hurst was also assessed an administrative penalty for of $1,900 for TOW20130017578, TOW20130017579, TOW20140000652; and an administrative penalty of $600 for VSF20130017576.
According to the agreed order, Hurst was fined for charging an impoundment fee without specifying the exact services and dates those services were performed.
According to the investigation, Hurst also performed multiple consent tows with a truck that was only permitted to perform non-consent tows.
In the investigation, the TDLR also stated that Hurst towed a vehicle from a parking facility that did not have the required signage prohibiting unauthorized vehicles.
A letter dated December 19, 2014 from the TDLR to West Texas Lender Support, LLC required a payment of $250/month on the 5th of each month beginning October 5, 2014.
We do understand that Hurst has closed WTLS.
We tried repeatedly to contact Randall Hurst by calling all known numbers, leaving messages through his attorney and even going to his home. And, while we know that Hurst is in town and has talked as late as Monday with some of our sources, Hurst has not responded to our attempts to contact him.
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