Massachusetts officials are poised to reinstate the license of a Weymouth tow truck driver they previously said was unfit for the job.
Joseph Lewis, owner of All Over Towing, was ordered last year to stop towing vehicles from private lots after numerous drivers complained about his conduct. State officials revoked his license, saying he "habitually violated" regulations designed to protect consumers.
But Lewis — who was accused by police of towing cars without permission, and by the state of gouging customers with improper fees — could be hauling away vehicles again within a few months.
The Department of Public Utilities, which regulates the towing industry in Massachusetts, recently approved a settlement with Lewis. The state agreed to return his license to perform involuntary or trespass tows after he pays a $1,000 fine and serves a 120-day suspension. Lewis must also reimburse several customers who filed complaints with the state and follow new measures designed to protect consumers.
The agreement comes only months after state officials accused Lewis of illegally towing cars, overcharging customers and ignoring audits ordered by DPU's Transportation Oversight Division, acting in a manner that state officials maintain was "contrary to the public interest," according to an order approving the state's settlement with Lewis.
The NBC10 Boston Investigators began looking into Lewis' towing company last year after half a dozen viewers complained Lewis was aggressive and predatory when he towed their vehicles from private lots.
Some told NBC10 Boston they were parked legally when Lewis hitched their vehicles to his truck and drove away. Others said he charged inappropriate fees.
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In response, the Transportation Oversight Division yanked Lewis' license in June 2019, saying in testimony filed with DPU that he "habitually violated our tow regulations that are designed to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive business practices."
Despite their order to stop, Lewis kept towing — continuing to remove vehicles in plain view of the NBC10 Boston cameras.
According to Quincy police, one of those cars that Lewis towed was an undercover police vehicle. That landed him in Quincy District Court, where Lewis pleaded not guilty last year to larceny and extortion charges.
'Moments of Anger'
With the criminal charges pending, Lewis and his lawyer continued to negotiate with the state last year to get his company's towing license back, filing an appeal that allowed All Over Towing to continue operating while the administrative case was pending.
In its appeal on June 27, 2019, the business wrote that it was short-staffed during the month of June and didn't immediately open a letter from DPU informing it of the revocation.
The company also appeared to blame customers for the state's decision, writing, "Due to the expansion of the business and the poor economy people feel they can get recompense, through pursuing a complaint to the Department of Public Utilities, [for] their moments of anger."
"We all understand people don't like to be towed," the company's appeal reads, "but we are providing a service for Private Property Management, which is to remove illegally parked vehicles from their properties."
State records indicate it wasn't the first time Lewis fought to keep his license.
DPU moved to revoke it four years earlier after similar issues surfaced, but agreed to let Lewis continue towing cars after he promised to comply with state regulations.
But more issues surfaced, according to testimony filed by an official from DPU's Transportation Oversight Division. All Over Towing has failed to file annual financial reports on time since it first received its license in 2011, according to records filed by the state.
All Over Towing also repeatedly failed to respond to consumer complaints on time, according to the state — a factor that played into its decision to revoke the company's license again last year.
In written testimony submitted to DPU, the Transportation Oversight Division also highlighted the so-called "gate fees" All Over Towing charged — a service fee that tow companies can tack onto your bill for the cost of moving your car from where it's stored to a public road.
After reviewing company records, the state found All Over Towing's gate fees were inconsistent, ranging from $57 to $108, according to written testimony filed with DPU. They were also sometimes improperly labeled as an "administrative fee" — a type of charge that state officials say was not warranted.
The state concluded All Over Towing appeared to be adjusting the gate fee so that a customer's total reached an even number — usually $200, $240 or $280, according to the written testimony filed with DPU.
"Basically, All Over Towing 'rounds up' … " the testimony reads. "Given the billing pattern observed, the [Transportation Division] takes the position that All Over Towing was purposely taking advantage of the public by charging inconsistent and improper gate fees for trespass tows."
Despite outlining a litany of concerns, DPU accepted a settlement agreement with All Over Towing on Jan. 24 that allows the company to continue doing business without admitting any wrongdoing.
NBC10 Boston tried several times to get someone from DPU to explain its decision. When we went to its offices, DPU's chief of staff told us the consent agreement with All Over Towing speaks for itself.
Lewis' attorney, Pat Matthews, said the state's towing statutes are unclear and don't necessarily bar tow operators from charging the fees Lewis was adding to some drivers' bills.
"Your argument is that you and your client had a different interpretation of the rules and regs than the state did, and you've come to an understanding about that?" NBC10 Boston's Ally Donnelly asked.
"Yes," Matthews said, "and my client's agreeing that he's going to comply with those requirements."
OUI Allegations Surface
But outside of his appeal with the state, Lewis has faced separate legal problems, the NBC10 Boston Investigators discovered.
Early on Christmas morning, a flatbed tow truck barreled through the guardrail on Route 3 north in Duxbury. The driver fled on foot, but according to a police report, officers found Lewis' cellphone inside the vehicle, and Lewis himself about 6 miles away "stumbling" and "covered in blood."
According to the police report, he told officers a group of men attacked him with a baseball bat while he was attempting to repossess a vehicle and stole his tow truck.
State police charged him with driving under the influence of alcohol, negligent driving and leaving the scene of an accident with property damage. He was scheduled to be arraigned on the charges Thursday morning in Plymouth District Court.
Lewis did not return our calls for comment on the incident.
The allegations appeared to catch his lawyer off guard when he learned of the incident during an interview last week with NBC10 Boston.
"What about the OUI?" Donnelly asked.
"Which OUI?" Matthews responded. "What are you talking about?"
"The Duxbury crash," Donnelly said.
"I don't know anything about that," Matthews replied.
It was unclear Wednesday whether officials at the state were aware of the new criminal case stemming from the Duxbury crash.
Under the terms of his settlement with DPU, Lewis must still reapply for a towing license after serving his 120-day suspension. If approved, he would be required to submit monthly towing records to the state for at least one year, and to include information on how consumers can lodge a complaint on his invoices.
After reviewing DPU's handling of the case, consumer advocate Deirdre Cummings said the state needs to do a better job protecting the public. Cummings, of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said Lewis had a "demonstrated problem" complying with towing laws.
"At some point, you have to say 'no,'" she said.