It wasn't until after 1 a.m. on December 23 that Peter Whitney decided to go out. Whitney, a 33-year-old from Barbados with light-brown skin and short, black, curly hair, had received a call from his friend Claude Harding. Meet at Harbor Grille in Dania Beach, Harding told Whitney. It's Jamaican night.
At 1:30 a.m., Whitney pulled into the Harbor Grille parking lot to find it full. Next door, in the parking lot of the Harbour Towne Marina, Whitney saw Harding's car parked with a number of others along the front of IK Yacht Designs. It was an area where he and Harding had parked many times before; no signs said they couldn't.
Inside, Whitney met Harding, a 33-year-old from Miramar, and the two socialized with friends among the mostly black crowd grooving to a DJ spinning Jamaican sounds. At 3:30 a.m., they walked back to the marina and discovered that their cars, along with about two dozen others parked in the same area, were gone.
Harbor Grille employees told Whitney where the cars had been taken: Mac's Towing Service at 418 SW Second Pl. in Dania Beach. A friend drove them to the tow yard, and they noticed that their cars were the closest to the fence. Then they saw the gate; it was unlatched. All they had to do was push it aside and drive their cars away. Riding a wave of liquid courage, Whitney and Harding reclaimed their automobiles.
On the ride home, Whitney had trouble steering his gray 1993 Volkswagen EuroVan. When he arrived home at close to 4 a.m., he took a flashlight and crawled under the van. The drive shaft was damaged; power steering fluid leaked into a pool on the driveway at his home near Griffin Road, in a recently annexed section of Dania Beach.
Then he heard the noise and saw the lights: screeching tires and pulsating red and blue. He crawled out from under his car, stood, and saw four Broward Sheriff's Office patrol cars, lights ablaze, outside his home. The deputies, guns drawn, ran toward Whitney. "They threw me on the ground like I was fucking [Pablo] Escobar," Whitney said. Down to the station they took him, for allegedly stealing his own car.
Harding, who lives outside BSO's coverage area, received gentler treatment from the Miramar police. An officer knocked on the door, asked what happened, and informed him that he'd have to turn himself in to the sheriff. "Be careful," the Miramar officer warned him. "BSO is pissed off."
Both Whitney and Harding were taken to holding cells where they spent the night, and they would later bond out for $1,500 each. Harding says he overheard BSO deputies joking about asking for "Christmas bonuses" because of all the revenue they had generated from towing that night.
The incident resurrects old questions about the relationship between BSO and Mac's Towing, which is owned by longtime Dania Beach politician and current Vice Mayor C.K. "Mac" McElyea. As a member of the Dania Beach City Commission, McElyea votes to award BSO municipal police contracts. BSO, in turn, contracts him for towing services. Each seems to scratch the other's back. "That issue came up years ago, long before I was here," Dania Beach City Manager Ivan Pato said, "and it was dealt with on the state level."
He's right. In 1989, four Dania Beach citizens filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics, alleging that the agreement between Mac's Towing and BSO represented a conflict of interest for McElyea and that his voting on whether to contract with BSO for Dania Beach police services represented an ethical violation. Florida ethics law prohibits city officials from selling private services to their city.
The commission investigated. On June 21, 1989, Craig B. Willis, an assistant attorney general serving as an advocate for the Commission on Ethics, cleared McElyea. At the time, BSO used what was termed a "strip sheet" -- a list of towing companies that would be called to scenes on a rotational basis. Mac's Towing was one of several companies on the list. A Florida statute allows an exemption "when the business is transacted under a rotation system," Willis wrote. The commission dismissed the complaint.
There's now just one problem: BSO's strip sheet no longer exists. BSO contracts only with Mac's Towing and Westway Towing. Mac's covers all assignments east of the Florida Turnpike and Lyons Road. Westway covers the western portion of the county. No more rotation system.
For this reason, Mac's Towing is the only company receiving towing assignments in Dania Beach, where BSO has a $7 million annual police contract thanks, in part, to McElyea's favorable voting record.
McElyea said in a telephone interview that he has been cleared of any possible wrongdoing and that the city attorney would notify him if his towing contract represented a conflict of interest. He claims the rotation system still exists because Stuart's Garage & Body Shop occasionally receives Dania Beach calls from BSO. But Stuart's is owned by McElyea's daughter, Cari McElyea Kresa, who also serves as vice president of operations for Mac's Towing. The two companies are hardly competitors, and BSO could not confirm McElyea's claim that Stuart's receives assignments.
"I have no problem with Mac's Towing as a towing company," said Richard Allan, manager of HTS Towing & Recovery and All Points Towing. "They're a fine outfit and are great at what they do. I do have problems with the system in that it's very politically corrupt."
Towing is indeed dicey business. In 1998, the owners of Daly's Towing, which had a contract with Fort Lauderdale, received ten years' probation after an eight-month police investigation uncovered illegal towing practices. Since governments and public agencies award some of the most lucrative towing contracts, politics plays a role.
In 2001, Mac's Towing, represented by influential lobbyist Ron Book, won the Fort Lauderdale contract despite the fact that McElyea offered the least amount of money. Mac's offered to pay the city a $50,000 annual franchise fee for six years, totaling $300,000. HTS offered a $200,000 annual franchise fee, or $1.2 million over six years. Sal's Towing and EMS Towing offered $100,000 and $70,001 per year, respectively. Still, a city evaluation committee recommended Mac's Towing, and the selection was approved by the City Commission amid allegations that McElyea's political tow cleared the way.
Franchise fees relate directly to the amount of money Fort Lauderdale generates for each car towed. To release a car towed in Fort Lauderdale, its owner must pay the towing company $65 (most of which goes directly to the towing company). Under Mac's contract, Fort Lauderdale receives $50,000 no matter how many cars are towed in the year. Had it accepted the HTS bid, the city would receive $200,000 for the same number of cars towed. "The whole thing is a scam, a sham, and everybody knows it," Allan said.
The 71-year-old McElyea has political connections that date back nearly 20 years. The Broward County native was first elected to the Dania City Commission in 1985 and has served as the city's mayor four times. He's a tough old bird who in 1991 shot two teenagers trying to break into Mac's Towing Service. Neither intruder was seriously injured, even though McElyea struck both with buckshot from a 12-gauge shotgun.
McElyea has grown his fortune while in and out of public office. In addition to Mac's Towing, he owns a company that recycles and sells auto parts and another that rents heavy equipment. Additionally, he owns nearly $2 million worth of property in Broward County. It's his towing business, though, that has proved most politically contentious.
"How can you be the mayor and own the towing company in the same town?" asks HTS Towing & Recovery's Allan. Indeed, that was the question one of McElyea's fellow Dania Beach commissioners wanted answered. Two years ago, Commissioner Bob Mikes moved to have the City Commission discuss McElyea's possible conflict of interest. The motion was denied.
"When we're trying to negotiate the sheriff's contract or the firefighters' contract," Mikes said, "he's almost useless because he depends on the sheriff and the firefighters for first-call response for his business. Does he negotiate the best deal for the taxpayers of the city and drive a hard bargain and then risk his business?"
It's a timely question considering Dania Beach is negotiating a new $35 million contract with BSO.
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McElyea claims that Mikes has alleged a conflict "just to be a pain in the ass." To this day, McElyea cites the 1989 state decision as proof that he doesn't have a conflict. But if the BSO strip sheet no longer exists, the ruling appears to be moot.
Speaking with a terse drawl, McElyea seems more than willing to answer another round of questions about his mixing of city and personal business. "If I've done anything wrong, I need to be prosecuted by the ethics commission and the attorney general," he says. "I haven't done anything wrong."
Whitney and Harding, who were both surprised to learn that their cars had in fact been towed by the Dania Beach vice mayor's company, want McElyea's possible conflict reexamined. In late May, the charges against Whitney and Harding were dropped when both agreed to serve 16 hours of community service. Neither man was charged with a parking violation (though both were hit by Mac's with double towing fees, and Whitney paid an additional $800 to have his drive shaft fixed), and the area where they parked continues to be used by others. Whitney contends that, without a parking violation to justify towing, it was actually McElyea's company that stole their cars.
Until now, Whitney had never realized that the name on a ballot could be the same one on the side of a truck with his car in tow. "Something like this happens," he said, "and it shakes your whole confidence in the system."