Thursday, December 14, 2017
Transportation

Emails show PTC, taxi cab collaboration not the first time

TAMPA — The Public Transportation Commission is already under fire for using workers from taxicab and limousine firms in May sting operations targeting drivers from their competitors, Uber and Lyft.

But emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show the stings were not the first collaboration between the public agency and the industry it's supposed to regulate.

Cab company owners were privy to emails between PTC executive director Kyle Cockream and his agency's attorney and lobbying firm. They were reassured that the PTC would fight a bill that would legalize ridesharing.

Uber officials say those records are proof that the agency is siding with the Hillsborough County taxicab industry, which is battling to protect its market share from firms like Uber and Lyft.

"If one thing has become clear in the past week, it's that there is a top-to-bottom culture of collusion at the PTC, which has actively worked to enrich special interests at the expense of people who rely on ridesharing," said Colin Tooze, Uber spokesman.

Cockream denies that claim, saying it is normal practice for the PTC to discuss industry topics with the taxi, limousine and towing companies it oversees.

"In the PTC's conversations with industry representatives, the goal is to share information," Cockream said in the statement. "Uber and Lyft are not legal in the county, but if they were, we would also have ongoing, day-to-day conversations with them."

But e-mails show Cockream took positions on proposed ridesharing legislation and, in at least one case, instructed a lobbyist to work against a proposed bill he felt did not create strict enough standards for firms like Uber and Lyft.

In an e-mail sent Dec. 2, Cockream reassured Michael Ribaudo, the owner of Sarasota limo firm MAR Car Service, that he had instructed PTC lobbying firm Corcoran and Johnston to press for changes to a bill filed by state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

The bill did not classify ridesharing cars as for-hire vehicles, which may have left them outside of the PTC's purview.

"We have some issues with it and our lobbyist is making our concerns known to the House & Senate members," Cockream wrote to Ribaudo. "We are hoping that this Bill doesn't get any traction."

Cockream was also involved in a taxicab firm's lobbying efforts with state Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City.

He attended an October 2015 meeting where Yellow Cab Co. of Tampa owner Louis Minardi and his attorney, Seth Mills, pressed Raulerson to make changes to a draft version of his bill to legalize ridesharing in Hillsborough.

The records do not detail how much Cockream participated but show he took part, suggesting that ridesharing vehicles be required to display a company sticker similar to a taxicab decal.

Cockream said he was directed by PTC chairman Victor Crist to attend the meeting, which was held at Raulerson's office. Crist wanted to be kept informed about the taxi companies concerns about the bill, Cockream said.

Taxicab owners also benefited from inside knowledge provided by the PTC's attorney and lobbyist, records show.

One example was a Nov. 18 e-mail chain between Cockream, Assistant County Attorney Cindy Oster and lobbyist Matthew Blair about a bill amendment from state Sen. Jeff Brandes intended to create additional oversight of the PTC.

Both Oster and Blair sent Cockream an analysis of the impact of the bill, which Cockream forwarded that day to Minardi in an e-mail sent from his phone.

"That would be alarming to me because that would be inappropriate," Crist said about the sharing of information.

The PTC paid the County Attorney's Office about $117,000 for legal services in 2015. It expects to pay Blair's firm, Corcoran and Johnston, about $125,000 this year for his services, Crist said.

The agency has come under increased scrutiny in recent days after the Times revealed that sting operations in May to ticket Uber and Lyft drivers were conducted with workers supplied by taxicab and limousine firms.

That led state Sen. Dana Young to write to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement requesting an investigation of the agency.

The PTC's governing board is scheduled to vote on a temporary operating agreement to legalize Uber and Lyft at its next meeting on Nov. 9.

Mills, the attorney who represents Minardi, said Cockream was only responding to complaints the PTC has received about how Uber and Lyft have continually disregarded county laws requiring drivers of for-hire vehicles have permits, submit to fingerprint-based background checks and carry commercial insurance.

"I think he's simply trying to show he is taking action to thwart the many complaints of those who are trying to enforce the law against illegal operations," Mills said.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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