When Pinellas sheriff's officials awarded a lucrative towing contract to a St. Petersburg wrecker company recently, they didn't know that two of its operators were in bankruptcy court. They did know, however, that the two men had been arrested by sheriff's deputies in 1981 for dealing in stolen diesel fuel.
It didn't matter to sheriff's officials. Although state law now forbids public agencies from doing business with vendors convicted of such crimes, the towing bid wasn't affected because the crimes happened years before the law was passed in last year's regular session of the Legislature. That law exempts crimes committed before July 1, 1989.
But the contract has generated accusations of political cronyism toward Sheriff Everett Rice, who leveled similar criticisms at the incumbent sheriff during his winning race for office two years ago.
The winning bidders and their associates contributed more than $500 to Rice's campaign, not including equipment they furnished for a campaign event. Also, when Rice was a private attorney he represented the company, Best Towing & Recovery Inc., which does business as City Wrecker and Storage, in connection with its St. Petersburg contract.
Rival towing companies are incensed.
"The thing that bothers me about this .
. is it's not what you know, it's who you know," said Brad Case, the owner of one of the companies that bid on the contracts.
"This whole thing is just a bunch of politics," said Joe Kolodziej of Joe's Towing & Recovery of Pinellas Park, which also bid on the contract.
Meanwhile, the criminal record does concern the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP), which has rules prohibiting companies operated by felons from participating in the patrol's rotation system, said Lt. Harold Frear of the FHP's Pinellas Park office. He said two towing companies the Zieglers are associated with are currently on the FHP's rotation list.
Those rules don't explicitly exempt old felonies.
"If there is a felony, you can't be on the list," he said. "We are going to look into it."
Rice dismissed the charges of favoritism, saying he let a five-member committee handle the towing contract.
"I represented a lot of people in that business and probably some of the people who are complaining," Rice said. "Because of that, I divorced myself from anything to do with that contract. I knew no matter who got it, there would be allegations of impropriety."
A new policy
For more than 15 years, the Sheriff's Department has used a rotation list of more than 30 tow-truck operators to haul away damaged and abandoned vehicles from areas under county jurisdiction.
This system had its problems.
Sheriff's officials said some of the companies would not respond to a call if the abandoned vehicle was a junker with a low salvage value. It often was difficult to find towed vehicles among the dozens of lots used by the towing companies. There were complaints of price gouging.
So in an effort to make the towing service more efficient and economical, the department divided the county into three zones and asked wrecker operators to bid for the business.
Ten of the county's largest towing companies responded. But two of the three available contracts went to one company: Best Towing & Recovery. The deal could be worth up to $250,000, some operators say.
Now, two weeks after the towing contract went into effect, other bidders said the deal smacks of politics.
Best Towing is operated, in part, by Bruce Ziegler and his son, Terry, who in 1981 were arrested for dealing in stolen property.
The Zieglers also operate Towing Services of U.S.A., which filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code two months before the contracts were awarded. According to sheriff's records, Best Towing & Recovery also does business as City Wrecker and Towing Services of U.S.A.
After the bidding companies were evaluated, Best Towing placed first in two zones and second in a third. Sheriff's officials were aware of the Zieglers' criminal records, but made no mention of them in their company's evaluation.
A criminal record
Records show that on June 11, 1981, a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy watched Bruce Ziegler pay a man $1,000 for 2,000 gallons of stolen diesel fuel. The fuel was pumped into storage tanks at Towing Services of U.S.A. Inc.
It wasn't the first time Bruce Ziegler had bought stolen fuel.
In July 1980, he bought 7,200 gallons of fuel from the same man for $3,650. He admitted to detectives that on both occasions he knew the fuel was stolen.
Authorities charged Ziegler, who at the time was a lieutenant in the Pinellas Park FHP auxiliary, with two counts of dealing in stolen property. He pleaded guilty to the charges. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, but his attorney negotiated that down to 21 days, saying the original sentence was too stiff. Ziegler said he served 13 days.
His son Terry, who was arrested in the same incident, did not contest the charge and was sentenced to three years' probation.
"We were aware" of the arrest, said Olga Walker, internal auditor of the sheriff's inspection bureau and a member of the selection committee. "We are in the business of reform ... and we hope he has been rehabilitated."
Other committee members were the chiefs of the patrol bureau, auto theft section and civil bureau, and the department's purchasing agent.
Sheriff's officials attempted to investigate the backgrounds of each bidder, and looked at their facilities and equipment. They rated the companies on a points system. Best Towing scored among the highest.
"References are excellent," sheriff's records state. "However, the financial statement reveals shortcomings that place doubt about Towing USA as a productive economic organization."
Sheriff's officials said they were aware of a "rumor" that one of the companies that bid on the contract was in bankruptcy court.
U.S. Bankruptcy Court records, which are public, show Towing Services of U.S.A. Inc. filed for reorganization Oct. 2, 1989. A sheriff's undercover officer telephoned U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Tampa but was unable to confirm the filing. Officials did not obtain the bankruptcy filings until a week after the contract was awarded.
The records show Towing Services owed money to more than 50 creditors, including $114,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and $8,000 to worker's compensation. The company also owes money on equipment it plans to use to fulfill the terms of its contract with the Sheriff's Department.
But the bankruptcy information did not change the committee's minds.
"It was somewhat of a moot point in our minds," said Bill Gange, the sheriff's purchasing agent. "The bankruptcy (involved) Towing Services of U.S.A., not Best Towing Services or City Wrecker. I don't know if the (Chapter 11 proceedings) of Towing U.S.A. had an impact on the ability of City Wrecker to do the job."
Rick Dorritie, manager and part-owner of Best Towing and City Wrecker, said the bankruptcy proceedings will not affect his company's performance.
"We have more than enough equipment to do the job," Dorritie said. "We welcome audits. We have nothing to hide."
Ziegler said his company will have no problem meeting the terms of the sheriff's contract. He blamed the controversy on professional jealousy.
"I was set up," Ziegler said of his 1981 arrest. "These people are reliving something that I have paid my dues for. I can truthfully say that sometimes in our lives we all make mistakes."
The contracts, signed Feb. 6, are good for three years. Sheriff's officials said they will be monitored closely and they can be canceled for "just cause."
Dorritie blamed the controversy surrounding the contracts on professional jealousy. "The wrecker business is dog-eat-dog," Dorritie said. "It's more of a war than a business."
Rice said that the next time his department goes out for bids, things will be done differently.
"From now on," Rice said, "we'll ask if they are in bankruptcy court."