A long-rumored investigation into bribery and police corruption in Buffalo’s lucrative towing business became public Wednesday when FBI agents and Buffalo police searched a Bailey Avenue tow truck company.
The unannounced search of Jim Mazz Auto Inc., 1255 Bailey, is part of a city-initiated investigation into possible misconduct by police officials directing work to select tow truck operators.
The investigation also is looking into reports of police personnel accepting bribes from local operators.
“That’s part of the investigation,” Mayor Byron W. Brown said of the bribery allegations. “Some of the complaints are in that vein.”
No arrests have been made, but an FBI official confirmed Wednesday that a search of Mazz Auto, one of many tow truck operators in the city, was conducted by FBI agents, Buffalo police and law enforcement officials with the IRS and New York State.
“It’s an ongoing matter, so we’re not able to talk about what we’re looking for,” said FBI spokeswoman Maureen Dempsey.
A lawyer for Mazz Auto said that the allegations of bribery and corruption are true but that it’s not his client who is behind the wrongdoing.
Steven M. Cohen, who has represented the company since 1998, said it was owner James Mazzariello who first brought the allegations of corruption to the attention of Buffalo police eight years ago.
Cohen said the city chose to ignore Mazzariello’s claims and over the years has targeted him for retribution, most recently by taking him off the list of city-approved tow truck operators.
“We had threatened the City of Buffalo with bringing an action in federal court if they didn’t treat us fairly,” Cohen said. “Instead, they’re taking the position that the best defense is a good offense.”
He said of Wednesday’s search, “That’s a torpedo that’s going to hit the ship that fired it.”
By Wednesday evening, Cohen’s law firm, HoganWillig, served a notice of claim on the city alleging that the “City of Buffalo and [City Parking Commissioner Kevin] Helfer engaged in a course of conduct consisting of predatory pricing, monopoly formation for their own benefit, price trusts, price fixing, abuse of authority and public corruption.”
City officials would not comment on Cohen’s allegations, but a source close to the investigation said Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda had met with Cohen in June and asked for any evidence he might have of corruption in the department.
“To this date, he has not come forward with any evidence,” the source told The Buffalo News.
Brown, meanwhile, praised Derenda for uncovering problems in the city’s towing operations and seeking the help of the FBI and others.
“Some time ago, I was informed by Commissioner Derenda about complaints of illegal and irregular activities in the city’s towing operations,” Brown told The News.
“At this point, anything related to the city’s towing operations, we’ve been aggressively looking at.”
Private tow truck companies are used by the city when a police tow truck is unavailable.
City officials say it was not uncommon in the past for tow truck operators to race to a crash scene, only to find a competing operator already there.
Sometimes, the competition for tows became so fierce that fights broke out at crash scenes. “It was just chaos, and we’ve been trying to change that,” Helfer said Wednesday.
Helfer said the city is in the process of evaluating the city’s tow truck operators with an eye toward creating a list of qualified operators who would share the city’s towing work on a rotating basis.
He said Mazz Auto is among six or seven companies that have submitted applications to the city.
The competition for work and the allegations of bribery are not the only reason the city’s towing operations have come under scrutiny.
In October, a city audit found one tow truck company, Riverside Towing and Recovery, receiving nearly 90 percent of the city’s private towing business.
The report found two others companies, Mazz Auto and South Buffalo Auto Parts, splitting the rest of the city’s business.
The towing business also garnered attention in May when tow truck driver Corddaryl Henley was found slain inside his truck at Walden Avenue and Latour Street.
At the time, there were reports from sources in the business that Henley, a 25-year-old married father, may have been the target of a competing tow truck operator upset that he was intruding on his business.
There have been no arrests in the case.
Police also are looking into reports that Henley’s slaying may have been drug-related and allegations that he was selling drugs from his truck.