■ The hackney division of the Boston police, charged with regulating the taxi business, fails by many measures to do just that. Some basic financial records aren’t kept, much less analyzed. Police do not track crimes by and against drivers or accidents involving taxis. Known violations by cab firms are seldom pursued; and the leadership of the division proved unable to address even some basic questions raised by reporters.
■ And while this sounds like a small matter, it is not: Many cab companies routinely fail to provide drivers with legally required receipts for the payments of $100 or so they must make at the end of each 12-hour shift. With no receipt for these daily lease payments, drivers are defenseless if cab companies accuse them of paying less than the sum due — a regular occurrence in some garages.
“I’ve never seen a receipt,” said longtime cabbie Michael N. Holley.
The Globe reporter who drove eight nights for the city’s largest taxi owner also was never given this required proof of payment.
Police say they have no record of ever citing an owner for breaking this rule.
Boston Cab’s owner, Edward J. Tutunjian, whose constellation of taxi companies is known to the public as Boston Cab, dismissed any suggestion that his employees are accepting illegal payments in exchange for the keys to his brown-and-white Toyotas.
“I wouldn’t tolerate that,’’ Tutunjian told the Globe during a brief, unscheduled interview in his drab basement office near Fenway Park.
But the money-for-keys scheme is an open industry secret, and the ingrained culture in which drivers are taken advantage of has been acknowledged by a former commander in the Boston Police Department’s hackney unit that regulates the industry.
“The unfortunate reality is that the industry suffers from a significant level of fraud and abuse,’’ then-Lieutenant Robert W. Ciccolo Jr. wrote for an industry newspaper when he served as the hackney division’s chief uniformed officer, a post he left in early 2010. “This takes place at multiple levels with some owners overcharging and defrauding drivers.’’
The failures of this vital but out-of-balance system appear finally to be ringing urgent alarm bells at the highest levels of Boston police headquarters and in the office of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino.
In an interview last month, Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said he was unaware until the Spotlight Team’s inquiries that taxi license owners — unlike drivers — are not subject to rigorous yearly background checks. That will change immediately, he said.
Moreover, Davis vowed to exert his sweeping authority to revoke the medallions of owners he finds have exploited their drivers — a sanction that, if he follows through on it, would jolt the industry.
“If I find out that someone is enriching themselves on the backs of poor cabdrivers, I will consider them unsuitable,’’ said Davis, whose father once drove a cab in Lowell. “They won’t be medallion owners in this city.’’
Davis has already taken one serious step.
Officials told the Spotlight Team the commissioner has sought the assistance of federal prosecutors to explore the allegations of taxi industry corruption. And federal authorities have in fact opened an investigation into allegations of systemic overcharging of drivers and bribery at Boston Cab, the Globe has learned. One source familiar with the investigation said it began after two drivers for Boston Cab told authorities that employees there were walking around with pockets stuffed with ill-gotten cash.
If the city now summons new intensity in policing its taxi business, it would be a dramatic departure from recent practice.
Mark Cohen, the director of licensing for the Boston Police Department, has been regulating city taxis for nearly 30 years. In that time, he told the Globe, there have been only “two or three’’ instances in which he believed he was hearing genuine accounts of owners financially abusing drivers.
“Come to us and bring us something,’’ Cohen said. “Get a group of drivers. Tell us who it is. We need a victim.’’
Cohen clearly hasn’t been looking hard enough.
Over the course of its investigation, the Globe found dozens of drivers who said the industry is rife with petty bribery and rip-offs, and the drivers said they cannot believe that city regulators are unaware of it.
“Mark Cohen knows about it,’’ said Chando Souffrant, a cabdriver and holder of two taxi licenses, or medallions. “The mayor knows about it. They don’t care about less fortunate people.’’
All in the family Continued...