Second of two parts
By Dan Herbeck and Jill Terreri
News Staff Reporters
There is no disputing the fact that William “Bill” O’Connell gets more towing jobs from Buffalo city government than any of his competitors.
O’Connell runs Riverside Towing & Recovery on Old Bailey Avenue in South Buffalo. According to a Buffalo News analysis of city vendor records, the city paid $621,654 to five private towing firms between 2006 and the end of 2012. Riverside Towing got 60 percent of that money, or $377,821. No other company got more than $83,977.
When city auditors studied towing payments during a 14-month period that ended in March 2012, they found that nearly 90 percent of city towing payments went to Riverside Towing. More than 1,600 towing referrals from the city went to O’Connell’s company. The other two firms that got city referrals got fewer than 200 referrals between them.
O’Connell, 53, a feisty and outspoken man with a thick walrus moustache, makes no apologies. He said his success at getting city towing jobs can be summed up in two words – hard work.
“In this business, diligence is what makes you money,” said the stocky O’Connell. “I am the one towing contractor who never turns down a call from the city. I work 90 to 100 hours a week. I am available every day of the year. I never take a vacation. I am always on call, no matter what time of day or what kind of weather there is.”
Officials of the city Parking Department and even his business competitors acknowledge that O’Connell is an extremely hard worker who puts in ridiculously long hours.
But O’Connell has his critics, including owners or workers at several other private towing companies who spoke to The Buffalo News in recent days. The critics noted that O’Connell’s company recently received an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau for its handling of customer complaints.
His critics also allege that, over the years, O’Connell has benefitted from close friendships with city officials, especially John R. Womer Sr., a former city parking official who lost his job in 2011 after admitting that he stole thousands of dollars in city funds.
Womer, now 57, ran the city’s towing and car storage operations for at least 19 years. His job ended in May 2011, when he pleaded guilty to skimming money from the city’s impounded-car auctions. Womer’s misdemeanor plea deal at City Court and his resignation followed an investigation by the Erie County District Attorney’s Office. Womer was sentenced to pay $8,575 restitution and perform 100 hours of community service.
Critics claim Womer was very close to O’Connell and used his position in city government to steer work to Riverside Towing. As evidence of the close relationship between O’Connell and Womer, these critics noted that O’Connell at one point hired Womer’s son, John Womer Jr..
“Womer ran the impound lot. His son worked for O’Connell,” said one Buffalo towing contractor, who spoke on the condition that his name not be published. “They had a clique.”
When Womer was running the city towing program, O’Connell consistently got more towing jobs referred to him than any of the other private contractors who were approved to receive city calls, the rival towing contractor said.
“There is a clique, and if you are in it, that is how you get work from the city,” a second rival tower said.
O’Connell admitted to The News that he did hire Womer Jr. “seven or eight” years ago to work at a scrap yard he runs at the same location as his towing business.
But the hiring of Womer Jr. was not an effort to gain favor with Womer Sr., and it had no effect on the number of referrals he got from the city, O’Connell insisted. He said the elder Womer never asked him to hire Womer Jr.
He also said he was unhappy with the younger Womer’s work and fired him after about five months on the job.
“I hired him because I was having a hard time finding people to work in our scrap yard,” O’Connell said. “It was hard, dirty work in our scrap yard, taking cars apart, for like, minimum wage.”
“It wasn’t like I hired him for $50 an hour for doing nothing. I did not hire him as a favor to his dad.”
John Womer Sr. could not be reached for comment. His son, Womer Jr., did speak to The News. He agreed with most of O’Connell’s account of the hiring, but he said he recalls working about six weeks for O’Connell, not five months.
“My father did not get me that job,” Womer Jr. said.
O’Connell said he worked closely with Womer Sr. but that their relationship was strictly a working relationship. O’Connell said he has never received special treatment from Womer Sr. or any other city official.
Steven M. Cohen, attorney for Jim Mazz Auto and an outspoken critic of what he calls pay-to-play in the city towing program, said he finds it hard to believe that O’Connell’s hiring of John Womer Jr. was not done to curry favor with the elder Womer.
“Parking Enforcement and Riverside were involved in a public scandal that showed the corruption in the Brown administration,” said Cohen, who says Jim Mazz Auto tried to blow the whistle on illegal practices long before the company itself became the subject of a federal probe.
“In light of the former relationship between John Womer and Bill O’Connell, we are disturbed, but not at all surprised, that Riverside gets the lion’s share of towing in this city. Nor was I surprised that Mr. Womer didn’t get jail time for his embezzlement,” he said.
“There is an atmosphere of tolerance of corruption in this city, as long as the right people are getting paid off,” he said. “Look what Mayor Brown is trying to do to Jim Mazz Auto for bringing city corruption to the attention of the city and the FBI. They are trying to dissolve him in acid as punishment for doing the right thing.”
What about the “F” consumer complaint rating that Riverside got from the Better Business Bureau? O’Connell said the rating is a “totally unfair and inaccurate” gauge of the service he provides.
“Any car I tow,” O’Connell insisted, “I treat it as I would want my own car to be treated.”
“I got an F from them because I don’t respond to their complaints. ... I used to respond to them, but I don’t have the time or energy, and I don’t believe in computers,” O’Connell said. “I tow about 3,000 vehicles a year. Look at the Better Business Bureau report on me. It lists seven complaints. I think that is a pretty low number of complaints for all the vehicles we tow.”
In its report, the Better Business Bureau said it has received seven consumer complaints about Riverside in the past 12 months. One was a complaint about billing; the other six were complaints about the service provided by Riverside, the consumer agency said.
Riverside’s rating was lowered to an “F” because of its “failure to respond to seven complaints,” the bureau said in its report. The four other city towing companies that got referrals from the city between 2006 and 2012 got much better rankings than O’Connell did. Ron’s Towing & Recovery and South Buffalo Auto Parts each got an “A-plus.” Greg’s Auto and Jim Mazz Auto each got “B” rankings.
One recent morning, O’Connell allowed a Buffalo News reporter to accompany him as he drove from South Buffalo to Potomac Avenue in the Elmwood Village to pick up a Pontiac that had been tagged by city parking enforcement officers. O’Connell said the vehicle was tagged and “booted” because the car’s owner owed hundreds on overdue city parking tickets.
It took almost an hour for O’Connell to drive a flatbed car hauler to Potomac Avenue, wait for a parking officer to arrive and remove the boot, put the Pontiac on the flatbed, drive it to the city impound lot on Dart Street, unload the Pontiac, file paperwork with city officials, and then drive back to his office in South Buffalo.
“For what you just saw, I get $50,” he said. “That’s what I make on most of my tows. Sometimes I can do it in a half-hour. Sometimes, it takes hours. I work hard for the $50. It’s a pain. I’ve had situations where I had to deal with gang bangers and pitbull dogs.”
If the work is such a hassle, why does he do it?
When things get busy, the money adds up, O’Connell said.
“A couple of weekends ago, we towed more than 80 cars,” he said. “I’ll pull in about $4,000 for that weekend, but it was hard work. We still have to pay our gas and other expenses ... but it pays some of my bills.”
City towing referrals are a relatively small part of his business, O’Connell said. He runs a scrap metal business and has more than 180 private towing clients, including development companies, restaurants, banks and other businesses that have parking lots.
For months, FBI agents and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have been investigating reports of wrongdoing in the city’s towing operations, including allegations that some Buffalo police officers have been taking bribes to steer business toward certain towing companies.
“I don’t pay bribes. I don’t get asked for bribes,” O’Connell said.
When asked if any other city towers pay bribes to cops or parking enforcement officers, he said, “No comment.”