More illegal taxis on streets; crackdown didn’t catch all wrecks

SHARE More illegal taxis on streets; crackdown didn’t catch all wrecks

On Oct. 27, 2008, a Lombard cop, chasing a speeder, was making a U-turn on Finley Road at 16th Street when another car broadsided his police cruiser.

The cop went to the hospital. And his 2008 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor was such a wreck that, even with just 25,602 miles on the odometer, it was declared a total loss.

“I was sick about it,” recalls Dane Cuny, deputy police chief in the west suburb. “The mechanic said it was a broadside to the point where the transmission housing was cracked.”

Five months later, though, the squad car had a new life — this time as a taxicab on the streets of Chicago. Bearing taxicab medallion No. 3347, it was part of the massive fleet of taxicab king Symon Garber, a Russian businessman who was in the cab business in New York when he befriended Mayor Daley’s son Patrick Daley. In just a few years, Garber became the predominant force in Chicago’s taxi business.

Garber put the former Lombard cop car back on the streets, using it as a cab, even though it didn’t have a title allowing it to be driven in Illinois.

After the wreck, the Illinois secretary of state’s office branded the squad car a “salvage” vehicle. Under Illinois law, once any state brands a vehicle “salvage,” it can’t be driven in Illinois until state officials inspect it, certify that it has been repaired and is safe to drive — and the secretary of state issues a title declaring it is now “rebuilt.”

Even if Garber had obtained a “rebuilt” title for the car, it would still be illegal to ever use it as a taxi in Chicago. Under a 2005 city regulation issued in the name of public safety, any vehicle ever branded by any state as salvage or rebuilt is forever barred from being used as a taxi in Chicago.

In a crackdown last month, city officials discovered that the wrecked police car had been illegally converted to a Chicago cab. It was one of 339 illegal cabs they ordered off the streets.

But they missed some others. A Chicago Sun-Times investigation turned up 23 more in Garber’s fleet that had once been wrecked so badly that they were issued new titles as “salvage” or “rebuilt” vehicles before Garber snapped them up — in some cases with a new title that disguised their history — and began using them as cabs.

Nearly a third of the illegal cabs the city took off the streets last month — 110, far more than any other cab operator — had been part of Garber’s two fleets of maroon-colored cabs, which operate under the names Chicago Carriage Cab Co. and Royal 3 CCC Chicago Taxi Association. Together, the two Garber companies operate 831 cabs.

After City Hall’s crackdown, the Sun-Times did a spot check of 100 other cabs in Garber’s fleets. Twenty-three — nearly one in four of those examined — had once been branded “salvage” or “rebuilt.” The city apparently missed those illegal cabs, even though city officials say they had researched the vehicle history of each of the 6,800 cabs licensed in Chicago.

Here’s how the spot check was done:

First, the Sun-Times obtained vehicle identification numbers and taxicab medallion numbers — which are the same as the number on the license plate — from the Illinois secretary of state and from City Hall for each of Garber’s cabs. Then, the newspaper bought vehicle-history reports for 100 of the still-operating vehicles from Carfax, a private company that provides reports to consumers, car dealers and state motor vehicle departments across the country.

The 100 vehicle-history reports obtained by the Sun-Times showed that:

– 23 of Garber’s cabs had “salvage” or “rebuilt” titles.

– Two others had once been declared a “total loss.”

– One had a “junk” title from Virginia.

– And 37 others had been involved in accidents before he bought them.

Almost all of them were once police cars — Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptors, the most popular car in Garber’s fleet.

City officials say they, too, used Carfax in their crackdown to ferret out illegal cabs operated by Garber and other cab companies.

“We checked the vehicle history of [each] medallion at least once,” says Vanessa Hall, an assistant press secretary to Mayor Daley.

So how did they miss 23 illegal cabs in Garber’s fleet? That’s not clear.

“Because there is a constant fluctuation of vehicles, we are continuing to double-check certain vehicles,” says Hall. “There is currently an ongoing investigation as to the use of salvage vehicles as taxicabs, and, if appropriate, the city will initiate disciplinary actions.”

Since the city’s crackdown last month, state records show that Garber has replaced at least one of his “salvaged” Ford Crown Victorias with a 2010 Ford Escape SUV. In all, according to Hall, 153 of the 339 illegal cabs pulled off the street in the crackdown have now been replaced with other cars.

Garber — who lives on a 10-acre estate in New Jersey — didn’t respond directly to messages seeking comment.

In a written statement, his publicist, June Rosner, says Garber didn’t know his fleet included any illegal cabs.

Of the city crackdown, Rosner says: “Mr. Garber did not know those cars were in his fleet until they were found by the consumer affairs department. Since then, his company has been working closely with the department to rid itself of ALL salvage and rebuilt cars.”

All 23 of the salvaged and rebuilt cars that the Sun-Times found in Garber’s fleet had been wrecked in other states, which issued new titles for them showing they were now salvage or rebuilt vehicles.

In some cases when Garber presented those out-of-state vehicle titles to register the cars in Illinois, somehow an “auction” sticker had been affixed in a way that hid the word “salvage” or “rebuilt,” according to Ernie Dannenberger of the Illinois secretary of state’s office.

In other cases, car dealers bought the vehicles at auction and registered them in Indiana without disclosing the vehicle’s accident history, Dannenberger says. Indiana has a history of issuing “clear titles” that hide a vehicle’s accident history, a process known as “title washing,” according to Ivan Blackman of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a private company that investigates insurance fraud.

Indiana officials acknowledge they’ve issued clear titles on salvaged vehicles because they haven’t checked the vehicles’ history — something that Brad Hoffman, director of titles for the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, says will now be done. “You want to know whether it’s been in a wreck or in a flood,” says Hoffman. “It’s a consumer-protection thing.”

After Indiana issued “clear” titles to dealers on wrecked cars, they were sold to Seven Amigos Used Cars, a Northwest Side company whose president, Alexsandr Igolnikov, is a business partner of Garber. Seven Amigos then transferred ownership of the vehicles to Chicago Elite Cab Corp. — whose president is Garber and vice president is Igolnikov. That company, in turn, registered the cars in Illinois — not showing that a car had been salvaged, according to Dannenberger.

So neither the state nor the city knew the newly minted cabs had been salvaged — and they didn’t check the vehicles’ histories.

They will now, officials say.

Hall says the city will no longer license a cab unless the owner shows the original title and a Carfax report.

HOW WRECKED POLICE CARS BECAME TAXICABS

Countless Chicagoans and tourists have been ferried around town in the back seats of wrecked police cars that were illegally converted into taxicabs. Here are four examples involving cabs operated by Symon Garber, who runs Chicago Carriage Cab Co. and Royal 3 CCC Chicago Taxi Association:

1. 2008 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor

Lombard police buy the car on Sept. 7, 2007, with eight miles on the odometer. On Oct. 27, 2008, the squad car is hit by another car, badly damaged and declared a total loss by the department’s insurance company. It has 25,602 miles on the odometer.

On Jan. 15, 2009, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White issues a “salvage certificate” for the squad car — meaning it can’t legally be driven in Illinois unless it’s repaired, inspected by state officials and found to be safe to drive.

On Feb. 4, 2009, SOM Auto Broker — an Indiana-licensed auto dealer that operates from a small house in Burbank as well as an office in a tiny Indiana town about 100 miles southeast of Chicago’s Loop — buys the wrecked squad car at an auction. SOM has a bill of sale showing that the car was abandoned or stolen — not that it was declared a “salvage” vehicle in Illinois. That document allows SOM to get a “clean title” from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. “Under Indiana law, that’s an adequate document for us to issue a title,” says Dennis Rosebrough, deputy commissioner for the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. In a case like this, unless the owner tells Indiana the car was salvaged, Rosebrough says, “How do we know to issue a salvaged title?” The title has now been “washed,” concealing that the car had been declared “salvage” by Illinois.

Eight days later, SOM sells the car to Seven Amigos Used Cars, a Chicago body shop at 4169 N. Elston. It’s one of several “salvaged” or “rebuilt” cars that Seven Amigos has bought from SOM, a company that went out of business last year.

On Feb. 15, 2009, Seven Amigos president Alexsandr Igolnikov transfers ownership of the car to Chicago Elite Cab Co. — which owns about 90 percent of the 831 maroon-colored cabs in Garber’s fleet. Igolnikov is vice president of Chicago Elite Cab Co.; Garber is president.

With the “clear title” issued by Indiana, Chicago Elite Cab asks the Illinois secretary of state’s office on March 27, 2009, to register the wrecked police car in Illinois with a “clear title.” But Illinois officials said no because the car previously had a “salvage” title in Illinois, says Ernie Dannenberger, the secretary of state’s vehicles department director.

The application from Chicago Elite Cab shows the car was already operating as a taxicab bearing license plate number 3347 TX — the same number on the medallion issued by the City of Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. That medallion is owned by Green Eyes Cab Corp., whose seven registered owners include Garber and Igolnikov. Green Eyes paid $45,000 for the medallion on May 13, 2004.

On April 9, 2010, the former Lombard police car is among 339 taxicabs ordered off the streets by City Hall in a crackdown against cab companies violating a city regulation that bans using any vehicle as a cab if it has ever been issued a “salvage” or “rebuilt” title anywhere in the United States.

On May 4, Garber gets a “rebuilt” title from the Illinois secretary of state, certifying that the car has been repaired without using any stolen auto parts and that it’s now safe to drive on the state’s roads — though not, under the city’s rules, ever as a cab.

2. 2007 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor

Originally owned by the Brookings, S.D., police department, it has 52,597 miles on it when an oncoming car turns in front of the police officer on Aug. 29, 2008, totaling the squad car. South Dakota officials brand it a “salvage” vehicle.

Car DL Inc., an Indiana-licensed dealer with offices in Chicago and Hammond, buys the car and gets a “rebuilt” title for the car from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, according to a vehicle-history report obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times from Carfax, a private company that sells such reports to consumers, car dealers and state motor vehicle departments across the country.

Car DL sells the car to Seven Amigos Used Cars, which transfers it to Chicago Elite Cab Corp., which gets a “clear title” from White. His staff now says it recently revoked that “clear title” because it has since learned that the Indiana title didn’t disclose that the vehicle had been “rebuilt.” They speculate that this could be because the word “rebuilt” might have been covered up by an “auction” sticker when the vehicle was sold at auction.

As of March 31, city records list the car as an “active” cab for Royal 3 CCC Taxi, operating under city-issued medallion 2793 that Garber’s partners bought six years ago for $50,000.

3. 2008 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor

Originally owned by the Camden, S.C., police department, it has 1,905 miles on it when it’s totaled on March 6, 2008, ending up with a “salvage” title from South Carolina. The insurance company sells the wrecked squad to Car DL, which resells it to Seven Amigos. It’s transferred to Chicago Elite Cab, which gets a “clear” title in 2009 from the Illinois secretary of state.

Following a Sun-Times inquiry, White’s office says it plans to revoke the clear title because the South Carolina title didn’t show that the vehicle had been totaled. Again, the suspicion is that a sales sticker covered up the word “salvage” on the South Carolina title.

As of March 31, city records list the vehicle as a taxi operated by Chicago Carriage Cab, bearing city-issued medallion 3309 that Garber’s business associates bought six years ago for $47,000.

4. 2009 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor

Originally owned by a Georgia police department, it has 10,662 miles on it when it’s totaled last July 20, ending up with a “salvage” title from Georgia. The car is sold to SOM Auto Broker, which resells it to Seven Amigos, which transfers title to Chicago Elite Cab, which obtains a “clear” title from the Illinois secretary of state.

Again, the Illinois agency suspects that a sticker on the Georgia title hid that it was a “salvage” title.

As of March 31, city records list the car as a taxi operated by Chicago Carriage Cab under city-issued medallion number 3010, which Garber and his partners bought last Sept. 17 for $183,000.

Contributing: Chris Fusco

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