TAMPA — Uber and Lyft have long accused Hillsborough's Public Transportation Commission of being in league with the taxicab and limousine-rental industry, citing the agency's efforts to block ridesharing in court and its ticketing of their drivers.
Now, internal PTC emails suggest there is evidence to support that claim.
Sting operations conducted by the PTC in May to fine rideshare drivers were coordinated with local taxicab and limousine firms that were invited to attend, records show.
The collaboration didn't end there.
The taxi and limo firms — which the PTC is supposed to regulate — were active participants in the stings. They provided the pretend "passengers" who used smartphone apps to lure Uber and Lyft drivers to locations where PTC enforcement officers were waiting to dole out $700 fines.
Their involvement took place with the full knowledge of PTC executive director Kyle Cockream, the emails show. Cockream, who is paid about $143,000 a year, also used his work email to apply for other jobs.
PTC board chairman Victor Crist called the documents "alarming and concerning." He said he wants an investigation into the agency's relationship with the firms that took part in the stings and also Cockream's role.
"There should be a review or investigation into the appropriateness of his behavior," said Crist, who is also a Hillsborough County commissioner. "There seems to be a much closer relationship between the staff and the companies we regulate than what would be considered best practices."
The stings were conducted in the week beginning May 1 in Town 'N Country, downtown Tampa and Ybor City. The two firms that provided staff for the stings were Yellow Cab Co. of Tampa and Kings Executive Limo and Car Service.
The drivers caught were cited for operating without a public vehicle driving license and not carrying commercial insurance. Uber and Lyft typically pay the fines their drivers incur.
Cockream said the taxicab and limo staff who participated in the stings were not paid by the PTC. He said using the volunteers saved the agency money. In previous stings, the agency hired Orlando audit firm A & L Associates, which cost up to $4,000 per sting operation.
But Cockream acknowledged it has created a perception problem for the agency.
"In hindsight, I probably would not have done this," he said. "I can see how it can be perceived in a negative light."
When asked if he approved the operation in advance, Cockream said, "I'm the executive director so I'm going to take full responsibility for this action."
PTC chief inspector Brett Saunders emailed the times and dates of the sting to other inspectors and also to Dave Morris, the owner of the Kings limo firm.
"Shoppers will be provided by Dave Morris and Louis Minardi," he wrote on April 29, using the term for the pretend passenger.
On May 5, Saunders sent an email to Minardi, who is the owner of Yellow Cab, ahead of another sting.
"Louie, good afternoon. Is everything a go for tomorrow's operation? We are planning on meeting on Channelside Drive in the parking lot next to the Hooter's Restaurant at 1:30 p.m. If you can have three assistants, that would be great."
Uber and Lyft have faced stiff opposition from local taxicab and limo firms since they began operating in Hillsborough in 2014.
Much of that has been led by Minardi, who has hired attorneys to oppose PTC attempts to introduce regulations to legalize ridesharing. He also filed an ethics complaint against Crist, who was trying to negotiate an agreement for Uber and Lyft to operate legally in Hillsborough.
Board members are scheduled to vote on that proposal at their next meeting on Nov. 9.
For Uber officials, the emails are proof that the public agency is on the side of the taxicab industry.
The PTC receives its annual $1.2 million operating revenue largely from fees charged for the licensing of taxicab, limousines, shuttle vans, tow trucks and handicapped transit services.
"These revelations, while shocking, only confirm what's been clear for a long time: The PTC is fixated on forcing ridesharing out of Hillsborough County in order to limit competition," Uber spokesman Colin Tooze said.
Other PTC board members agreed with Crist that using taxicab staff was ill-advised but said it should not affect Cockream's leadership.
"Kyle still has my full support and confidence," said County Commissioner Al Higginbotham.
Cockream was scheduled to step down from the PTC in July but agreed to stay on through the end of the year, in part to help usher the agency through its dispute with Uber and Lyft.
He said almost all of his job-hunting efforts were done outside the office and estimates it took up only about 20 minutes of total work time.
"I think it's important to keep that in perspective," he said.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.