Tow truck corruption, kickback scheme bigger than just a few Ottawa cops, alleges whistleblower

Click to play video: 'Alleged kickback scheme with police, tow truck drivers' Alleged kickback scheme with police, tow truck drivers
WATCH: A Global News investigation has revealed an alleged crime scheme in Ottawa's tow truck industry may be worse than the RCMP first believed. Mike Le Couteur reports. – Jun 5, 2020

In the towing industry, they call it “cop connects”: a scam where drivers can make up to $1,000 per “hook” and kick back as much as $500 to the friendly officer that refers his favoured driver to a collision scene.

An Ottawa whistleblower says he knows exactly how this corruption is occurring because he also has paid off his “cop connects.”

“Absolutely,” he said in an interview with Global News.

“Multiple times. Money, motorcycles, cars — multiple times. And not just for accidents. Just for information.”

He confronted and covertly recorded an Ottawa police officer at a collision scene in 2018, two years before the RCMP announced anti-corruption probe charges against the 32-year-old officer and several others allegedly involved in a kickback scheme.

Again, in 2019, the tow truck driver warned a city councillor that Ottawa’s tow industry is rigged against consumers, and “hundreds of people are getting scammed every week and the amount of corruption within the Ottawa police is at an all-time high.”

Story continues below advertisement

Now, in part due to his repeated complaints, Ottawa has announced a sweeping bylaw review.

READ MORE: 20 people charged in connection with tow truck turf wars across GTA

But the whistleblower says he has much more to reveal. He believes serious crime surrounding the industry is far broader than several charges announced in April.

And so, the Ottawa whistleblower has agreed to explain a lucrative business where cash benefits and confidential information are easily traded with police officers.

Global News has agreed to protect his identity for security reasons.

The Ottawa whistleblower, and a number of other drivers interviewed by Global News, said there are a few simple factors underlying rampant corruption in the tow industry.

It is a lucrative business. Insurance payouts can be substantial. And the industry is disordered and poorly regulated, leading to vicious, Wild West competition for “hooks.”

Drivers often race to collision scenes, attempting to be first in line to solicit stranded drivers. Police officers at the scenes are left playing referee between competing tow drivers, but by using their discretion improperly, officers can hand out tows and reap rewards.

A number of drivers told Global News this amounts to corruption and abuse of power.

Story continues below advertisement

“He’s a police officer who people respect and we’re just, you know, the ‘vultures’ like they call us,” the whistleblower said.

And because the Ottawa tow industry is slanted towards a winner-takes-all model, collision scenes start to feel like gang turf wars. The whistleblower said even for drivers who would like to follow the rules, getting close to police officers is the only way to make a profit.

“It’s pretty much the only way to hook in this city as a tow truck operator, if you want to hook and pay your bills,” he said. “You need to have an unfair advantage. Otherwise, you’re not going to hook.”

Click to play video: 'Police arrest 20 tow-truck drivers allegedly involved in violent GTA turf war' Police arrest 20 tow-truck drivers allegedly involved in violent GTA turf war
Police arrest 20 tow-truck drivers allegedly involved in violent GTA turf war – May 26, 2020

Some Ottawa tow truck drivers say the discretion police have on the scenes of collisions has forced them out of the industry.

Story continues below advertisement

George Mrad worked in Ottawa’s towing industry for a year but said he had to give it up due to a lack of business. He recalls showing up to collision scenes and getting turned away by police, who he claims would advise customers to take their tow suggestions over independent drivers on the scene.

“They have pretty much all the discretion because people have trust in the police. So if the police is going to come up and tell you that, you know, Company A is absolutely terrible, you should go with our Company B, you’re going to listen to them,” Mrad told Global News.

While drivers often get calls for smaller service gigs like boosting a car battery, collisions are the holy grail of towing jobs. Mrad explains that the monthly costs of operating a towing business, between truck payments, insurance, maintenance and fuel, mean that unless a driver is regularly securing hooks at collisions, there’s no chance of breaking even.

“There’s only so many $60 tows and service calls you can do,” he says.

How are they formed

Lucrative “cop connect” relationships aren’t formed on the spot. According to the whistleblower, inappropriate relationships are formed over time and often start when police officers themselves use tow truck services.

Several tow truck drivers told Global News they knew of relationships formed when police officers were found in compromising situations, such as alleged impaired driving collisions.

Story continues below advertisement

“Maybe, you know, some (tow truck drivers) find officers drunk. That’s how they get there. They crash their car drunk. Single-vehicle accident,” the whistleblower said. “The guy says, ‘Oh, my God, I’m a cop.’ You’re a tow truck. (You say) ‘I’ll help you. Don’t ever say anything.’”

Having a good relationship with a tow truck driver can be lucrative business for police officers. The whistleblower says cops often ask for a cut of each bill when they call their connections to a collision scene.

The average collision can purportedly net an officer a cut of up to $500, the whistleblower said, or more if there are multiple vehicles in need of a tow. If that cop works the traffic beat for a few days a week, helping to arrange one or two tows per day, the tally could rise to hundreds of thousands of dollars in under-the-table payments per year.

The whistleblower says making sure the cop gets their cut is a primary factor in the size of the final bill. If that finder’s fee weren’t in the equation, vehicle owners and their insurance companies would be paying less per tow in Ottawa.

READ MORE: ‘Organized crime knows fraud is the way to go’ — former RCMP financial crime expert

But the relationship between cops and drivers isn’t always monetary, the whistleblower said, and it’s often informal.

Story continues below advertisement

According to the whistleblower, to keep the connection strong, a truck driver might take a friendly officer on a trip to a secluded fishing spot. They might give the officer’s car a custom decal or provide some renovation work on their connect’s house. He said drivers provide services, gifts, vacations or anything their connection might need.

In return, the whistleblower says, some drivers get more than just a heads-up on towing jobs. The whistleblower alleges he’s been able to solicit sensitive information from police databases with just a quick phone call to his own connections. He acknowledged citizens would be shocked to know that private information can be easily traded. He used the hypothetical example of a road rage incident. A person with “cop connects” could easily track down a driver that “cut them off.”

“If someone wanted to run a plate, they do that stuff,” he said. “They’ll look up police reports. They do sketchy stuff.”

The whistleblower says these kinds of quid pro quo relationships are rampant throughout Ottawa. But it was one alleged relationship in particular that led him to blow the whistle on the entire industry.

Confronting an alleged cop connect 

An ongoing RCMP investigation into allegations of police tip-offs in Ottawa’s tow industry was first made public in April. Three Ottawa police officers were charged, as were three members of the public.

Story continues below advertisement

Among those arrested in connection to the case were Ottawa Police Service (OPS) Const. Kevin Putinski and Ottawa United Towing owner Jason Ishraki. Global News has found that Ishraki and another Ottawa police officer charged in the case, Const. Hussein Assaad, are possibly linked to a numbered company with the same address as an Ottawa towing company yard.

Corporate records show that Ishraki and a “Hussein Assaad” are listed as directors of the numbered company, although Global News could not confirm the “Hussein Assaad” listed as a director of the company is also the police officer charged in the case.

Putinski and Assaad are charged with breach of trust and secret commissions. Assaad, 44, is also charged with providing access to confidential police databases and obstruction of justice.

Assaad could not be reached for comment through his lawyer. Ishraki also could not be reached for comment. And Putinski did not respond to a request for comment through his LinkedIn account.

The allegations have not been proven in court.

For years, the whistleblower alleges he saw Putinski turn drivers like himself away from collision scenes, insisting the collision victims had called CAA, only for United Towing to later arrive on the scene.

He says he was never able to catch the officer’s name to make a formal complaint until one night in May 2018.

Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: 2 tow trucks intentionally set on fire in York Region, police say

The whistleblower says he saw the familiar officer and a United Towing truck at the scene of a collision that evening and resolved to confront Putinski. He turned on his cellphone camera to record the encounter.

In the video, the whistleblower is heard asking Putinski why he is being asked to leave the scene and denying that the car owner at the scene has asked him to leave.

“I know you’re Jason’s friend, too,” the whistleblower says.

“Jason’s friend, what are you talking about?”

“He’s right there, he’s standing right there talking to you, you don’t know Jason? …  I know you know Jason because Jason said, ‘Putinski is my friend.’”

At no point in the video does Putinski admit to wrongful conduct involving Jason Ishraki or admit to knowing Ishraki.

“I literally told (the stranded driver) you can take whoever you want,” Putinski says. “I get the game, I get it.”

“It’s $1,500 sitting there,” the whistleblower says.

“I know, I get it,” Putinski says. “It’s money in your pocket.”

Story continues below advertisement

Later, Putinski returns to the whistleblower’s truck and says: “You might want to call Jason, if (the stranded driver) takes Jason. I told him he can take anyone he wants. It’s up to you guys. You guys talk it out.”

Before the whistleblower leaves the scene, Putinski is heard saying: “OK, good to know you guys. So if you show up sometimes, you guys are solid.”

The recorded conversation runs intermittently for about 15 minutes and has been condensed for clarity in this story.

With a video in hand that he believed would prove an illicit connection between Putinski and Ishraki, the whistleblower says he put in a call to a staff sergeant at the OPS that same night.

The whistleblower says he has played the video for Ottawa police in a meeting. It is not known if Ottawa police or RCMP have retained the video, and neither force would comment.

But for years, he says, no action was ever taken against Putinski.

Email and call records reviewed by Global News confirm the whistleblower made repeated allegations about Putinski and other officers.

“The name of the officer is Kevin Putinski,” one 2018 call record says. “I’ve been on scene before, he kicks me off, tells me that CAA is coming. I have it all on tape. And who shows up? Jason, from Ottawa United. So I’m letting you know, there is no way to get this guy in trouble, he’s a cop. I’ve called before. The staff sergeant said it’s not your business.”

Story continues below advertisement

The Ottawa Police Service was asked to comment on allegations in this story but said it could not, citing the RCMP’s ongoing investigation. In a statement released when the charges were first laid in April, Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly called the charges “very serious” but added that they “do not reflect the overall integrity of OPS members.”

Global News asked the Ottawa Police Services Board to comment on the allegations in this story.

In a prepared statement, acting chair Sandy Smallwood said the board “expects all Ottawa police members to act in a lawful and ethical manner. We will continue to work with the chief of police to make ongoing investments that will advance the culture at the service; raise ethical standards; and develop our members.”

The RCMP also said it could not comment.

“I want to point out that if further charges are identified, a media release will be sent out,” an RCMP spokesperson said.

A whistleblower says Ottawa’s tow industry needs deep reforms to combat corruption. Michael Haslett / Global News

In a January 2018 email to the City of Ottawa and Ottawa police, the whistleblower laid out widespread concerns.

Story continues below advertisement

“The tow truck situation is getting out of control,” the email says. “(Towing is) a very lucrative business. There are many costs associated to running a legal tow truck business and there are some people that try to skip some of the rules by looking for loopholes or completely disregarding the laws.”

Again, in September 2019, the whistleblower emails a city councillor, saying he has repeatedly pushed for regulations in Ottawa, with no response.

“100s of people are getting scammed every week and the amount of corruption within the Ottawa police is at an all-time high,” the email says. “Drivers are getting assaulted and stabbed on a weekly basis. An Ottawa (towing company) driver was gunned down and murdered in his truck two summers ago.”

He’s not alone pushing for reforms in the industry. In 2018, Mrad rallied truck drivers in an attempt to form an association that would certify trusted drivers in the industry and present upfront, regulated prices to bring standards to towing in Ottawa.

“Every tow company part of that association would charge the exact same dollar amount. So no matter who you went with, you knew exactly what the price was from the get-go. There was no hidden fees,” he said.

But driver support for the association faded when Ottawa city hall failed to engage, he said.

Story continues below advertisement

Mrad says he also called on city councillors to push for bylaws to regulate the industry but was told at the time that there would be no action of the sort until after the municipal election in 2018. He tried again when the new term of council began but again heard nothing.

In interviews with Global News, the whistleblower and other Ottawa tow drivers echoed these calls for strict pricing regulations in the local industry.

Now, as the RCMP investigation starts to bring to light allegations of corruption within the industry, the City of Ottawa has announced a sweeping review of bylaws regulating towing in the nation’s capital.

The city is accepting residents’ concerns related to the local towing industry until June 27. A website set up to collect feedback says the city has heard complaints about billing, business practices, road safety and “alleged illegal activities” in Ottawa’s towing scene — allegations that could extend to organized crime in the city.

Towing turf wars

Story continues below advertisement

In multiple interviews with Global News, the whistleblower pointed to examples of conflict in Ottawa’s tow industry. And there were possible flare-ups of violence past week, as a tow yard on Leitrim Road in south Ottawa caught fire and a number of vehicles were destroyed in the early morning hours on May 28. Ottawa police’s arson squad is investigating.

Meanwhile, police in the Greater Toronto Area have also been investigating conflicts in the towing industry that police say resulted in arsons and violence.

In late May, York Regional Police said they charged 20 people and laid hundreds of organized crime-related charges after an investigation into ongoing tow truck turf wars.

“The Greater Toronto Area has been the scene of violence between rival tow truck companies who have been fighting over financial profits from the towing of vehicles and, the most significant source of profit, the frauds following the initial tow,” York Regional Police said in a news release.

“The competition for control of the towing market has resulted in murders, attempted murders, assaults, arsons, threats and property damage.”

The Ottawa whistleblower said he considered the risks in coming forward and disclosing his direct knowledge of how “cop connects” corruption works. He said finally, he judged that lives are endangered in the present system, and the turf wars have to end.

Story continues below advertisement

“That’s all I want. A level playing field, right?”

And in simple terms, the towing industry could look like a taxi system. Drivers get background checks and have to pass safety exams. Enough tow trucks to service demand are put on the road, and calls are dispatched in an orderly way.

“For me, a regulation that would be fair is $250 to $300 for the hookup. Where did the accident happen? You get this many kilometres. That’s it. That would be the fair way to do it.”

Following the public consultation period, Ottawa city council will likely consider staff recommendations on changes to how towing is regulated in September.

Sponsored content