Constables' towing tactics under fire

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by By KEVIN KRAUSE / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:47 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 12:21 PM

For more than two years, two Dallas County constables have embarked on aggressive and unregulated towing operations using a company with a troubled history in the auto-salvage business.

DAVID WOO/DMN
A car is unloaded at Dowdy Ferry Auto Services on Monday. The towing service is used by Dallas Constables Derick Evans and Jaime Cortes, who combined have had more than 10,000 vehicles towed since 2007.

Precinct 1 Constable Derick Evans and Precinct 5 Constable Jaime Cortes use Dowdy Ferry Auto Services almost exclusively for towing. The company also provides the constables with a vehicle impound lot - without a contract.

Evans and Cortes say there's nothing improper about their arrangements with Dowdy Ferry. But Dallas County Judge Jim Foster says the issue needs to be examined by the county, which authorized traffic units for the constables several years ago to tow cars for lack of insurance and other violations.

Since 2007, both constables have been towing more vehicles than many large municipal police departments in the county.

But unlike most police agencies, Cortes and Evans provide no oversight of how owners are notified of impounded vehicles or how those vehicles are disposed of through auction or other means.

As a result, there is no way to find out if owners are being properly notified about their vehicles' whereabouts. It's also impossible to know how many towed vehicles have been deemed abandoned and what ultimately happened to them.

"The time has come to wake up and realize we have a situation that's totally out of control," Foster said. "We need to bring transparency to a situation that has cast a dark shadow over Dallas County."

Foster said some deputy constables have been fired for not towing vehicles. He said he plans to ask county staff today to research the possibility of starting a county impound lot.

"They [vehicles] need to be stored in one central location overseen by the county so there's no perception by anyone that there's kickbacks being given," said Foster, who declined to comment on whether a county investigation is under way.

Dowdy Ferry Auto Services has been licensed to tow for about three years and doesn't tow for any other police agencies.

Its owner, Milad "Chris" Nasrallah Sr., who has spent a lot of his career in the auto parts business, said he is not licensed to auction vehicles and doesn't contract with anyone to auction the many unclaimed vehicles on his lot.

The vehicles sit on several acres of rural land he owns off Dowdy Ferry Road in unincorporated Dallas County, just outside Hutchins.

Nasrallah and his oldest son, who currently faces auto theft charges, run the family's various auto-related businesses, which have been sued numerous times for not paying property taxes. Nasrallah, 61, also was forced to move an illegal auto salvage business out of Irving.

Evans said he uses Nasrallah's towing company because the firm towed for him when no one else would - before his traffic unit was expanded. "Until he can't keep up, we'll be satisfied," he said.

Cortes said he was familiar with Dowdy Ferry when he used to work for Evans. He said he's not concerned that the lot is miles from his precinct and could be inconvenient for owners seeking to recover towed cars.

"I'm comfortable with their service," he said. "I can't control where they're located."

Nasrallah and his associates have given at least $6,750 to Cortes' campaign since 2007, according to campaign finance reports. He gave $2,000 to Evans' campaign in 2005, reports show. Both constables are Democrats.

Evans' and Cortes' deputies have been kept busy towing cars.

Evans said his traffic unit has 12 deputies. Between the beginning of 2007 and the end of 2008, he towed more than 9,000 vehicles, according to records his office provided.

Cortes, who previously was Evans' traffic sergeant, was appointed constable in mid-2007 by commissioners. Since then, he has towed more than 5,200 vehicles, according to records his office provided.

By contrast, Richardson police - one of the county's largest municipal police agencies with 140 officers - towed about 4,000 vehicles during the same two-year period. Mesquite, another large police department with 225 officers, towed 6,525 vehicles during that time.

Both constables say their involvement with the vehicles ends once they are towed, and that it's up to the owners to address any problems recovering their vehicles.

"Once the car is towed, we have no control over what the company does with them. We are here to enforce traffic laws," Cortes said. "If I wanted to be in the towing business, I wouldn't have run for constable."

Problems in the past

Nasrallah has had a troubled history in Dallas County, according to public records.

His auto salvage yard in Irving - Dallas County Auto Salvage - has for years violated multiple codes in the city, court records show. The city of Irving filed suit against Nasrallah's company in 2004, seeking an injunction to bar him from continuing to operate there.

The city accused the company of violating electrical, plumbing, mechanical, health and fire codes and asked that the company pay unpaid fines.

The city said Nasrallah's property had unsafe buildings, fire hazards, piles of garbage and refuse in numerous locations.

In a deposition in the case, Nasrallah said his salvage business consisted of buying vehicles from police and private impound lots, stripping the vehicles and selling the parts. The cars he couldn't sell were crushed and sold to scrap metal dealers in the U.S. and overseas, he said.

In late 2006, Nasrallah settled the suit by agreeing to phase out his salvage operations in the city over a roughly three-year period and move from the site, court records show. By April, everything must be gone.

Nasrallah and his companies own about 22 acres on Dowdy Ferry Road. Because it's in unincorporated Dallas County, it's not subject to any environmental, health or safety codes.

Nasrallah's companies also have been accused of not paying city, county and school district property taxes over the years, court records state.

At least eight tax suits have been filed against Nasrallah's companies since 1996, and several judgments totaling at least $118,000 have been entered, court records show. One of those tax cases, filed in December, is still pending.

Also, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which oversees towing and vehicle storage, is investigating Nasrallah's businesses for administrative violations, said DeLisa Hamilton, a department investigator.

Nasrallah and his son also face criminal charges.

Chris M. Nasrallah Jr., 29, was indicted last October on felony theft charges after Dallas police said he ordered a man who worked for him to steal cars for their parts. Detectives tracked stolen cars to a property on Dowdy Ferry Road owned by one of Nasrallah's companies.

On the property, officers recovered 17 stolen vehicles, some of which had been stripped of their engines and transmissions, the police report said. In late June, the senior Nasrallah was indicted on a felony charge of illegal dumping. The indictment said he dumped or allowed to be dumped more than 1,000 pounds of material last September.

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