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By Jill Terreri, Dan Herbeck and Gene Warner

News Staff Reporters

A federal investigation into Buffalo’s shadowy tow truck industry is uncovering an underworld of bribery, police corruption and violence.

A tow truck driver was found gunned down in his vehicle. Then a veteran police officer being investigated for taking bribes from tow truck operators killed himself in his home. The public has gotten ensnared, too, as police order wrecked cars of Buffalo accident victims to be towed to a city lot, costing money and headaches and raising questions about what’s going on.

Now come public accusations from one tow truck operator of long-term, systematic police shakedowns of tow truck companies. And that operator claims that the city has retaliated against him and removed his company from the list of firms used to tow private vehicles from accident scenes, costing him more than a million dollars in revenue.

“We’re talking about cops who say if you want to tow in the city, you have to pay,” contends Steven M. Cohen, who represents James Mazzariello, owner of Jim Mazz Auto.

Cohen acknowledges that his allegations that city officials are demanding bribes in a widespread pay-to-play scheme could be viewed as his way of deflecting attention from his client, who is under investigation by federal authorities himself.

But Mazzariello hired Cohen in 2004 to go to the city to stop the bribery long before a grand jury was impaneled in 2011, the lawyer said.

“The record is clear that he’s hired us to try to stop corruption,” Cohen said. “For him to then be accused of corruption is an extraordinary distortion of justice.”

Mazzariello’s Bailey Avenue shop was the target of a multi-agency raid in December, and he is under investigation for tax, wire and insurance fraud, bribery and violations of the Hobbs Act, which prohibits bribery and extortion, according to sources close to the investigation.

In consultation with other operators, Mazzariello and Cohen have turned over to the authorities a list of 28 city workers, including 20 police officers, that they say have demanded payoffs over the years, Cohen said. The list has been around a few years, and some of the officials are dead or retired, he said.

Cohen said he believes the “vast majority” of Buffalo police officers are honest.

“But some were taking shakedowns at these accident scenes,” Cohen said. “It basically was a matter of officers saying, ‘If you want to bring home money to put bread on the table for your family, you have to pay me first.’ It was more than just taking bribes. It was a shakedown.”

Cohen acknowledged that Jim Mazz Auto drivers have paid bribes in the past.

The city declined to comment on why Mazz was taken off its list of rotating companies called to accident scenes.

When Cohen approached Mayor Anthony Masiello in 2004 about the corruption, it quickly came to an end, Cohen said. The record since then has been less clear cut, he said.

Under Mayor Byron W. Brown, city officials have said they approached federal authorities about bribery allegations.

Mazzariello’s detractors

While Cohen says it was Mazzariello who brought the corruption to the city’s attention, other operators say Mazzariello’s own business practices are questionable.

William O’Connell, owner of Riverside Towing and Recovery, which gets consistent business from the city, has harsh words for Jim Mazzariello.

At one point, he called Mazzariello “a lowlife.”

“If anyone is doing things improperly, it’s Jimmy Mazz and his company,” O’Connell said. “His hustle starts at an accident scene. He will send two, three, four trucks to the scene. They’re like vultures. They start talking to the drivers whose cars were in the accident. … They’ll tell them, ‘The towing won’t cost you anything as long as you get the collision work done in my shop.’ ”

Reacting to O’Connell’s claim that Mazzariello is a lowlife and that his drivers behave like “vultures” at accident scenes, Cohen said: “In all the years I have worked with Jim Mazz, going back to 2004, I haven’t seen any sign of dishonesty in this man. How do you call someone dishonest when he hires an attorney trying to stop corruption in the city?”

A longtime tow truck operator compared the Buffalo towing scene to the Wild West. He cited the “good old days” of tow truck competition, when the first truck at the scene took the first car, the second truck took the second, and everyone operated from an unwritten gentleman’s agreement.

The FBI’s investigation

The local police community was shocked by the July 15 apparent suicide of Central District Police Officer Jeffrey A. Mott at his home in Pendleton.

Within hours of the death, it was revealed that Mott was the subject of the federal bribery investigation. Mott was one of several Buffalo police officers suspected of taking kickbacks in return for information about accidents in the city, sources have said.

It’s unclear whether Mott was the only police target of the FBI, according to interviews with people familiar with the case.

The bribe-taking activities of some officers was “blatant ... right out there in the street,” according to one tow truck driver who did not want to be named.

“You’d see a bunch of tow trucks pull up at an accident. An officer would be there in charge. One tower would hand the officer some money,” and the officer “would order all the other towers to leave,” the driver said.

“There were probably six or seven officers who kept doing this, even after everyone knew the FBI was looking at it. … Some of these guys were making $90,000 a year on their police jobs. I couldn’t believe they were taking $25 or $50 bribes,” the driver said.

Joseph M. LaTona, a well-known Buffalo criminal defense attorney, confirmed he was representing Mott in connection with the investigation led by the FBI but did not discuss the details.

“I don’t know if he was the main target of the investigation, or if there was a main target,” LaTona said.

Another well-known Buffalo defense attorney, Patrick J. Brown, said he represented one individual who was approached for questioning by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI. He declined to comment about the individual’s role in the case or if the individual cooperated.

The lawyer said he did not get a sense of how widespread federal investigators believe the alleged wrongdoing is. “But my sense is that they were very much focusing their investigation on one person,” he said.

Others, though, say the wider multi-agency probe involving the FBI, state taxation officials, the state Department of Motor Vehicles, Buffalo Police and the Internal Revenue Service has spent more than two years focusing on multiple individuals.

The FBI declined to comment for this story.

Mott’s death is not the only one connected to the Buffalo towing scene.

Corddaryl Henley, a driver for Patriarch Towing, was shot and killed inside his truck May 5, 2012, and others in the business say he had been threatened with a gun the previous day by another operator.

Investigators have also considered whether drugs played a role. The case is unsolved.

Towing in the city

A driver who gets into an accident in Buffalo faces a runaround – a trip to City Hall to pay towing and storage fees and then a trip to the city’s impound lot, for the privilege of towing the car again, to a repair shop.

Mike Hopkins, 25, found out the hard way, when he got into an accident near the Elmwood Village on a recent Saturday morning.

Hopkins said he would have been able to drive to a legal parking space and planned to call a tow truck to take his vehicle to a repair shop.

The police officer on scene, however, deemed the car undrivable because of leaking fluid and said the city’s own tow truck was on its way to take the car to the city impound lot.

“The officer said if I was to move my car, I would be arrested,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins couldn’t get the car towed to a shop until the lot opened Monday, at which time he had to pay $140 – $90 for the tow and $50 for two days of storage at the impound lot.

Though the process looks like a hassle for drivers, city officials said, it is intended to protect motorists from being caught in expensive scams set up by shady tow truck operators.

“What did we have before? We had stories all the time of ‘Somebody took my car. They showed up on the scene. I don’t know who it was,’ ” said Corporation Counsel Timothy A. Ball.

To try to cut down on the competitive – and sometimes combative – nature of the towing business, where operators vie for tows and the expensive collision bills that will surely follow, Brown enacted a policy that limits the operators that can tow a car that has been in an accident and is disrupting traffic.

The new rules, set in May 2012, also demand that disabled cars be impounded by the city.

The policy was an effort to cut down on the “Wild West” nature of competition between tow truck drivers, but even Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer acknowledged that in some cases, drivers still race to the scene. They flash their business cards in hopes of luring drivers to their repair shops.

To cut down on private tows, the city has four of its own tow trucks and recently filled all five of its driver positions. If those trucks are busy, dispatchers call Riverside or South Buffalo Auto Parts, the two companies on the city’s rotational list.

Quick response times are crucial in an accident, and a police officer – and the traveling public inconvenienced by accidents that block traffic – can’t wait an hour for someone’s preferred tow company, or AAA, to arrive, Helfer said.

The policy of taking every disabled car to the city’s impound lots on Dart and Seneca streets give predictability to the public and insurance companies, who no longer have to try to find them at a number of lots controlled by towing companies, Helfer said.

In the case of Hopkins, who was in an accident last month, the vehicle could have been too dangerous to drive, and his car was blocking a private driveway, Helfer said.

People who have been in accidents are traumatized and vulnerable, said Ball.

“So what do we offer? Control at the scene and predictability,” he said.

Tow operators however, noted that cars cannot be towed to motorists’ homes unless the car is in a legal parking spot at the time of the accident, and the city’s $25 per day storage fee adds up, especially for drivers who need time to save up for a big collision bill.

Helfer said the city charges less than private lots.

Meanwhile, the city’s revenue at its impound lots has more than doubled in the last year. In the year ending June 30, revenue at the lots was $1.1 million, up from $461,724 the year before.

The city’s Strike Force initiative, which also began in 2012 and cracks down all types of crimes, is responsible for nearly all of that increase, Helfer said.

The city recently solicited bids for operators for its tow list, as the current contracts have been in place since 2000, which runs afoul of state municipal law, according to the city comptroller.

email: jterreri@buffnews.com, dherbeck@buffnews.com and gwarner@buffnews.com