New law will hold companies accountable for repeat-offender cabdrivers

Aja Engel was a victim of a chronically cited cabdriver, Rida Lemghari, and the cabbie ended up being cited for a road-rage incident in which he tried to ram Engel's car. (José M. Osorio/Tribune)

Chicago has long had rules to punish taxi companies that allow dangerous cabbies to drive their vehicles, but those rules have rarely been enforced.

A Tribune investigation found that in only two cases since 2008 did city regulators try to impose fines on cab companies for hiring repeat offenders. During that time, scores of companies could have been cited.

Companies avoided penalties for handing the keys to drivers such as Rida Lemghari, who had been cited by city regulators at least 46 times in five years and found liable of the charges in 33 cases. Cabs from one industry mogul's business consortium were linked to at least 14 of those guilty cases, including when the city found that Lemghari tried to run motorist Aja Engel off Wacker Drive.

"The companies should be responsible for them," Engel told the Tribune. "One or two tickets is one thing. But when it's 46 and nobody is doing anything, that's crazy."

The Emanuel administration said the law is so weak and narrowly written, it hasn't been worth the effort for it or the previous administration to enforce it. Instead, city officials are focusing on a new ordinance — it's set to go into effect this summer — they say will be easier to enforce and finally hold cab companies accountable for repeat offenders they let behind the wheel.

"One of the reasons why we took on the challenge of rewriting the ordinance is because we needed it to be clear, crisp and easy to enforce," said Rosemary Krimbel, commissioner of the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection department.

But the city's interpretation of current code is debatable and part of a broader question about how much companies should be accountable for what drivers do.

Current law ignored

Some in the cab industry say companies shouldn't be liable for drivers' actions under the current code. There's a shortage of drivers willing to work the long hours needed to make meager pay. And there's no way, for now, to easily check a driver's history of citations.

Drivers are not technically employees, but rather independent contractors whose training and oversight is formally overseen by the city.

Tribune investigations in recent months showed how the city, for years, regularly cut plea deals allowing repeat offenders to stay on the road, something city officials are now curtailing. This is the first look at how the city has also been lax in its policing of the companies using dangerous drivers.

"No owner wants a bad driver in his car. We don't gain anything," said industry lobbyist Baxter Swilley. "The reason why you get those repeat offenders is because (companies) don't know, and they don't have the mechanism or systems to track these drivers."

Systems or not, a 2000 provision requires companies be fined up to $750 for leasing to a driver who has committed an offense with the owner's cab and then commits the same offense again with the same owner's cab.

A 1997 provision requires the city to revoke the medallion of a cab used to violate the repeat-offender provision and certain other rules at least five times in a year. The medallion is an owner's legal right to operate a cab — and typically costs six figures.

Neither provision has been enforced, and just why offers a lesson in how mandatory edicts in city code can lead to little action.

City regulators said they've long lacked the computer systems, personnel or interagency cooperation to track cases in a way to enforce either provision. Even today, much of the research would need to be done by hand to determine if specific cases would trigger what regulators consider the narrow parameters of the ordinance.

They say all the work likely would lead to little payoff. When they occasionally enforced the 2000 provision, they found cases dragged on and city hearing officers imposed small penalties. The most recent case was in 2008.

So regulators focus on other provisions, such as penalizing companies for cabs being dirty, in disrepair or being previously salvaged vehicles. The latter led to a high-profile 2010 sting netting more than $1 million in fines. That included more than $800,000 from some of about 150 companies associated with Symon Garber.

Garber came to Chicago in 2002 and soon rose to the top of the industry. He gave generally modest amounts of money to various state and local political campaigns, including to former Mayor Richard M. Daley's, as well as Rahm Emanuel's 2011 opponent, Gery Chico, while his companies grew to control about a tenth of the city's taxi fleet through maroon cabs under the names Chicago Carriage or Royal 3CCC.