SHIAWASSEE COUNTY — Numerous towing company operators in Shiawassee County say they’re being cut out of the lucrative on-call towing rotation in favor of a single operator whom they claim isn’t playing by the same rules as everyone else, and one has now filed a federal lawsuit seeking relief.
Rob Lepley, owner of Lepley and Sons towing of Owosso, alleges in his lawsuit, filed in United States District Court’s Eastern District of Michigan, that Shiawassee County Sheriff Brian BeGole “has been unfairly favoring one of (Lepley’s) competitiors, i.e. Allstar Towing,” by selective enforcement of the county’s towing policy, which resulted in Lepley’s company being removed from the tow rotation in November 2018. The lawsuit claims the policy “was put in place by the defendant (BeGole) as an excuse in which to justify the removal of (Lepley’s) from the rotation which would benefit Allstar Towing, whose owner (Richard Gokee, Jr.) is (BeGole’s) friend.”
According to federal court documents, filed attorney Victor Mastromarco Jr. on Lepley’s behalf, BeGole was served with the lawsuit June 17, and has 21 days to respond. A witness list filed by Lepley’s attorney indicates he is seeking testimony from BeGole, Allstar owner Richard Gokee, and “the individual who gathered the information” that led to Lepley’s removal from the rotation, along with Allstar’s business records.
BeGole has not yet responded to the summons, and court dates have not yet been scheduled in the case.
BeGole previously said, however, there are many reasons for the policy, and data shows the towing policy that was implemented in 2017 is doing what it’s supposed to do, which is protect customers from being taken advantage of or unfairly charged.
“We were getting countless calls and a lot of the people were getting taken advantage of,” BeGole said of the reasoning for the policy. “There were things that needed to be addressed: poor response times, complaints of price gouging, overcharging for storage, people weren’t answering the phone. Some wrecker companies were running the business out of their house. They would bring those people’s cars back to their driveway. They never had a legitimate business… We were very conscientious and wanted everybody to be on a level playing field… There are frivolous complaints made by other wrecker companies. We have learned this is a dog-eat-dog business. All of them complain about each other… Things are pretty even across the board now.”
Information from Lepley’s lawsuit and a Freedom of Information Act request by the Argus-Press show Allstar Towing receiving significantly more tow calls than any other towing company on the rotation.
According to statistics provided by the Sheriff’s Office, in October and November 2016, Allstar received 67 tows, Brown’s 29, Bowden’s 10, Conrad’s 13, Dick’s 33, Joe’s Body Shop 33, Justice 19, Lepley and Sons 13, Maximum 26 and Young’s four.
For October and November 2017, Allstar received 50 tows, Brown’s 29, Bowden’s 14, Conrad’s 24, Dick’s 31, Joe’s Body Shop 30, Justice zero, Lepley and Sons nine, Maximum 28 and Young’s zero. Several companies that received only a small number of calls or are no longer in business were not included.
From Jan. 1, 2018, to Nov. 27, 2018, however, Allstar received 168 calls for tows in Shiawassee County, and Lepley’s received 46, according to Lepley’s lawsuit.
Those numbers have remained relatively consistent on a month-by-month basis since the towing policy was adopted, with Allstar receiving the majority of tows in Shiawassee County, by approximately a 2- or 3-to-1 ratio, a “grossly disproportionate” amount, according to language from Lepley’s lawsuit.
The Sheriff’s Office now includes statistics for the number of tows in the county on its website, but it has not been updated since early May.
BeGole instituted the new county-wide policy in 2017 setting out requirements for tow companies.
Rules included having liability and workers compensation insurance, as well as insurance for vehicles. Other requirements include gated fencing and video cameras for vehicle storage areas.
Also businesses need to be open for customers to retrieve vehicles from storage within 20 minutes of a request.
The policy also requires tow companies be located on sites that are zoned commercial or industrial. Tow truck operators must also be qualified under the Michigan Vehicle Code, and maintain a current driver’s license and have chauffeur’s license qualifications.
The Sheriff’s Office plans to conduct annual inspections to ensure that all companies remain compliant in order to stay on the rotation.
Also according to the towing policy, companies are assigned coverage areas of the county, and handle towing from those areas based on their location.
Lepley says he has been in business since 1996 and was part of the rotation until BeGole removed his company in November 2018. The tow owner says in his suit he believes BeGole set up the policy to benefit Gokee, with whom BeGole is friends.
Lepley says he was told in October his company needed a sign stating his business name, hours and a phone number. He also was required to have fencing, indoor storage and cameras, as well as commercially zoned property.
His suit claims he addressed all the concerns and sought reinstatment, but was denied in May 2019.
The suit says BeGole in May required proof of insurance. Lepley says he maintains proper insurance for his company and had never been asked for proof before.
BeGole then told Lepley his firm would no longer would be used for heavy towing, which Lepley specializes in. Only Allstar, among other tow firms, can also handle such work.
Lepley is requesting at least $25,000 in damages from the county.
“No rational basis exists for treating plaintiff less favorably than Allstar, except to give Allstar Towing preferential treatment and an unfair advantage against the plaintiff,” Lepley’s suit states.
Several other operators within the county have been charged with various towing-related crimes in the last several months, and also claim they are being unfairly targeted by the Sheriff’s Office.
They also say the towing policy is being selectively enforced, to favor Allstar and to remove them from the towing rotation.
Maximum Towing owner Todd Mehigh was charged April 12 with felony alteration of a document and two misdemeanors, failure by a garage keeper to report an accident and larceny by conversion (less than $200).
Mehigh disputes the validity of the accusations, which arise from a November 2018 incident in which Maximum Towing was contacted for a tow by a vehicle owner’s mother.
The owner had driven his vehicle into a ditch and it had a flat tire, but proceeded to drive the vehicle to work with a flat tire. The vehicle sustained substantial damage to the wheel and was left at his place of employment.
Mehigh contends the vehicle’s title was already signed and he had permission to tow it to Specialty Salvage in order to have the vehicle scrapped. Police said the vehicle owner’s mother acted without permission, and filed charges against Mehigh.
The vehicle’s owner was not cited for failure to report an accident or leaving the scene of an accident.
Numerous Facebook messages to the owner of the vehicle and his mother seeking comment were not returned.
Mehigh’s recollection of those events is corroborated by Specialty Salvage owner Chris Spencer. According to Spencer, an MSP trooper visited Specialty and asked about the vehicle in question and requested the title for the vehicle before he scrapped it.
“The State Police were in here,” Spencer said. “I asked the trooper if the kid wanted the car back. The officer said ‘No, he doesn’t want the car back.’ The trooper said he needed the title, and I gave it to him. He gave me a scrapping certificate. I hadn’t done anything with the car yet and hadn’t scrapped it. It turned out that they pressed charges (against Mehigh), and the kid didn’t even want the car back. The kid told me so himself when he came to get some personal items out of the car. Why would they press charges when the car wasn’t even scrapped yet and the kid didn’t want it back anyway? Myself and an employee of mine who witnessed this will be happy to testify to that in court.”
Mehigh reached an agreement in May with prosecutors in which he pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor failure to report charge and received probation and community service. The balance of charges were dismissed.
He said he is unsure whether he will be put back on the towing rotation, due to the conviction, and fears he may be forced to close his business.
Joshua Depeal, an M-21 Towing driver, was charged April 18 by prosecutors with two counts of misdemeanor false pretenses ($200-$1,000) following an investigation by the Sheriff’s Office.
Depeal is accused of allegedly charging customers for equipment that wasn’t used and services that were not performed. Police say Depeal charged customers more than $500 to perform two tows of less than 1 mile each from their destinations.
Depeal, however, disputes those charges and said he believes they were timed to sway public opinion.
“I understand what I’m being charged with, but these charges are bogus,” Depeal said. “They’re trying to get all the companies off the rotation for a certain company to get all the tows. I turned myself in and they said they can make these charges disappear if I throw my boss under the bus.”
Court records indicate that Depeal rejected a plea deal in the case, and is scheduled for a jury trial at 8:30 a.m. July 31 in 66th District Court.
Numerous other operators and former Allstar employees, who all asked their names not be used out of fear of retaliation, made statements similar to Mehigh’s and Depeal’s, claiming these charges were filed in order to influence public opinion.
Allstar owner Gokee also has a lengthy criminal record in at least three Michigan counties, including felony convictions for breaking and entering, and receiving and concealing stolen property in 1995; and receiving and concealing stolen property in 2011.
He also has misdemeanor convictions for receiving and concealing stolen property in 2005 and 2012, and larceny in 2011. He also has a December 2018 conviction in Shiawassee County for domestic violence. That conviction resulted in a deferred sentencing agreement and does not appear in court records or searches.
Gokee declined to comment for this story, but denied any impropriety by himself or his employees.
BeGole said Gokee’s convictions do not disqualify Allstar from being a part of the towing rotation since Gokee hasn’t had any charges or convictions related to towing.
“(Gokee) and his crew are not the only ones who have criminal records,” BeGole said. “If I did that, a lot of these companies wouldn’t be in business. If it’s untruths, cheating or corruption in the wrecker industry, that’s when I take action. I’m obligated to do that. If something happened where property came up missing from one of his tows and they got a warrant for him, he’d be done too.”
However, according to Saginaw County District and Circuit Court records, Gokee was charged in 2011 with numerous felonies directly related to towing — unlawful driving away of an automobile and receiving and concealing stolen property (motor vehicle), along with a habitual offender-second offense notice — for towing a car that didn’t belong to him from Saginaw to Grand Rapids and having it scrapped for money.
Gokee pleaded guilty to attempted unlawful driving away of an automobile, however, and the remainder of charges were dropped by prosecutors.
That case and another larceny charge against Gokee were investigated by the Saginaw County’s now-defunct automotive theft team, the Saginaw County Sheriff’s Office confirmed Tuesday.