Taxi Authority Dereliction of Duty
COMMENTARY: Steve Miller
Las Vegas Tribune
March 20, 2002

"We've taken in excess of 50 rides, and one out of five rides that we take, we offered the opportunity for the driver, and they attempted or diverted us to a specific location."

That was the statement of Nevada Taxi Authority (TA) Administrator John Plunkett when asked if taxi passenger diversion complaints had merit?

Plunkett went on to say that cab drivers told his investigators, who were posing as tourists, that certain topless clubs were closed; a rip off; dirty; or the girls were ugly, in order to persuade them to go to a club that paid drivers off.

Chris Christoff, Chairman of Citizens for Better Transportation, is fuming over Plunkett's remarks. "Try four out of five drivers diverting passengers," said Christoff.

Christoff's main beef with the TA is lack of service to locals and tourists. It is well documented that locals and tourists often wait hours for a cab sometimes causing them to miss flights. Both Mayor Pro Tem Gary Reese and Councilwoman Lynette Boggs-McDonald have registered similar complaints on behalf of their constituents.

Christoff believes that the needs of cab riders are being overlooked unless they want to go to a business in the category of those paying bribes.

Christoff explains that hundreds of cab drivers are spending their shifts driving only short distances so they can receive up to $40 per passenger "bribes" from unscrupulous topless club owners for "recommending" certain clubs over others.

Christoff went on to say, "Why would a cabby want to take a radio call when he can pick up fares at Strip hotels, drive two miles and extort $40 to $120 for ten minutes of his time?"

Christoff represents a group that has been around for fifteen years. Their track record is quite impressive. Back in the early 1990s, Citizens for Better Transportation paved the way for the Citizens Area Transit system. Now the citizen's group is reinvigorated with the prospect that they will be able to stop a practice that's been successfully prohibited in every other city and state, and thereby put more taxis where they are needed.

Christoff wants to remind the TA that Mr. Plunkett has never investigated how other jurisdictions stopped diversion, and also remind them of the often-ignored "Need and Necessity" requirement of the TA's competition-limiting law. He says that the need and necessity of all citizens must be provided for, not just those who frequent bribe-paying businesses.

The diversion problem first surfaced in December 1998. Councilman Mike McDonald asked Christoff to schedule a meeting at Pizzeria Uno. In attendance were a number of owners and managers of adult clubs.

The meeting was intended to address customers being diverted to clubs that were then paying cabbies up to $20 per passenger. The participants at the meeting discussed finding a remedy to the extortion problem.

Several months later, without warning, Little Darlings, Déjà vu, Cheetahs, and Crazy Horse Too broke rank and openly began paying cabbies, first $5, then $10 a head to divert customers. Councilman McDonald, a former policeman, took no action.

The first diversion study took place on January 14, and 15, 2000. It verified an average of seventy-three cabs per hour dropping off or picking up passengers from just one topless club.

Upon hearing the results of the 2000 study, Christoff said, "Its no wonder that cab riders are complaining they can't get a cab at any time of the day or night."

Christoff points out that the taxicab industry is "privileged" and is competition limited. This privilege is designed to protect company investments from competition, but is also intended to be paid back for with good service to locals and tourists not wishing to go to topless clubs.

Even the cabs with "restricted" permits prohibited from being on the Strip or the airport can partake of the topless club's bribe's as long as the club is not located on Las Vegas Boulevard or McCarran Field. The restricted cabs are supposed to serve the needs of local citizens, however many now specialize in operating into and out of the industrial areas where most of the topless clubs are located.

Christoff complained that when members of his committee tried to call the TA to complain during hours when diversion is heaviest, they were told that only one office girl was on duty and could not take the complaint. In the case of cab riders wanting to register complaints, many have left town without calling back. In other words, Christoff says that Mr. Plunkett has no real idea of how many people have tried to complain and were turned away because it was after business hours or over the weekend when Plunkett says he has no office staffing or investigators in the field.

The Citizens Committee believes that the companies owned by Dave Weldon, Charlie Frias, Jim Bell, Ray Chenowith, George Balaban, and Jason Awad, enjoy the monopoly and couldn't care less about remedying the diversion problem. When the TA conducted a recent workshop, only one owner and one cab driver showed up.

The Committee also believes it is time that the Legislature deregulates the industry "so we can get some decent cab service with companies and drivers who appreciate customers. This includes all forms of public transportation including limousines."

Also, it has been recommended that the TA be disbanded and cab fares lowered to make up for the savings of the agency's three million two hundred thousand dollar operating budget (plus an undisclosed amount from cabby fines).

"We would like to audit Mr. Plunkett's operation to find where all the money goes," Christoff commented.

Meanwhile, Christoff's group has hired an attorney and is exploring the possibility of filing a class action lawsuit against the TA for Dereliction of Duty, and possibly against several cab companies for not complying with the law.

Christoff explains that passenger diversion by taxi drivers for bribes is not permitted elsewhere, and asks why Las Vegas should continue to be the exclusive province of such illegal activity? "The Nevada Resort Association and the Convention Authority would be welcomed if they were to join us in stopping this practice. They do such a great job bringing tourists and conventions here, they need to help make sure visitors leave with a good feeling."

Steve Miller is a former Clark County Regional Transportation Commissioner.