In late 2007, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price learned there was a problem with the 2005 Bentley sedan he had just bought from a small Dallas dealership.

The $130,000 British luxury car had just been traded in by a man who never titled it in his name. At the time, police were hot on the man's trail for allegedly embezzling $1.4 million from Baylor Hospital.

To become the Bentley's legal owner, Price needed a ruling from the Dallas County tax office during a special administrative hearing. He was successful.

Price is no stranger to such hearings. A collector of vintage and luxury cars, he acquired title to six of the 13 vehicles currently registered in his name through special title hearings at the tax office, records show.

Price's vehicle title issues shed light on a little-known process handled by county tax offices to clear up cloudy vehicle ownership issues. But because of state privacy laws, the process remains secretive.

The informal hearings - conducted by clerical staff in counties across Texas - receive no outside scrutiny or oversight. Tax collectors have complete authority to rule as they see fit regardless of the evidence.

There are no uniform procedures from county to county, and some tax collectors refuse to even hold title hearings, which are not open to the public.

In 2007, under previous Tax Assessor-Collector David Childs, the Dallas County tax office granted Price legal title to five antique and older-model vehicles during hearings even though the sellers didn't sign his title applications and he didn't present any ownership evidence such as a sales receipt, invoice or canceled check.

Such documentation is considered standard ownership evidence by other counties.

The hearings were needed because the Texas Department of Transportation refused to issue Price a title, citing "not enough evidence," county records show.

Title to four of those vehicles, including a 1940 Ford, was granted on the same day. Price requested the hearings because he bought vehicles without titles or couldn't produce the titles and thus wasn't the legal owner of the vehicles.

Although the way he acquired title to some of his vehicles is considered unorthodox among classic-car collectors, Price did nothing improper. And following the hearings, he paid sales tax on all the vehicles, records show.

Law is broad

The law governing tax office title hearings is so broad that a tax collector could give someone title to another person's vehicle without even notifying the owner. But most tax collectors follow the state's recommendation to notify owners before holding a title hearing.

John Ames, Dallas County's tax assessor-collector who took office in January, said the only record his office has of Price's vehicle transactions is for the Bentley title hearing. He refused to release that information.

In addition, Ames could not produce records showing how many title hearings his office has held over the years, despite state requirements that his office maintain such records for five years.

Ames initially refused to comment on any aspect of Price's title hearings. He later answered some questions and said he will require written procedures for future title hearings.

Typically, tax offices will not hold a hearing if there is a dispute over the vehicle's ownership. However, a tax collector theoretically could issue a clean title to a stolen vehicle if it wasn't reported stolen at the time.

Procedures vary from county to county, and some tax collectors have more stringent requirements than others.

The Harris and Fort Bend county tax offices, for example, require the applicant to submit proof of purchase, such as a sales receipt, as well as completed forms before a decision is made whether to even grant a title hearing.

And Harris County will not grant title if the applicant cannot provide a bill of sale or if the office is unable to notify the owners of record.

"We have to show a history of ownership. If we can't see that, we can't grant title," said Jim DeVore, the Harris County tax office's chief deputy.

His office has been holding fewer title hearings in recent years. In 2005, the office held 207, or about four a week, statistics show. During the past two years, however, the office has only handled about 85 - or 1.7 hearings a week.

"In general, we don't approve most requests," DeVore said.

Other tax collectors refuse to hold hearings altogether. That's because they are liable if someone later makes a claim to a vehicle. Tax collectors are required to purchase a bond while in office, which is their insurance policy against that possibility.

If someone can't get a title from a tax office hearing, they can purchase a bonded title that protects them from future claims on the vehicle. However, that can be expensive because the bond is based on the vehicle's price.

The only other option is to go to county court to ask a judge for a ruling.

Price's collection

As a car collector, Price has been a frequent visitor to the tax office over the past 20 years to process title paperwork for unique and unusual vehicles, said Childs, the former tax assessor-collector who lost his bid for a sixth term last year.

"The cars he dealt with tended to have more issues with them," Childs said. "I didn't pay it much attention."

Price said he's had only one new car in his life and that he buys, trades and sells cars as a hobby.

Seven of at least 13 vehicles registered in Price's name as of May are vintage or antique American vehicles. He also owns a 1989 Lotus and a 2000 Jaguar XK8, records show. Price said in the past he's also owned a Ferrari and a Rolls-Royce.

"I'm not married, and I don't have any habits that I have to support," said Price, who earns about $126,000 a year as a county commissioner.

Jack Griffin, a local classic-car collector for 33 years, said he's never heard of the title hearing process and would never buy a car with title issues.

"I would be pretty suspicious of a car that didn't have a title," he said.

State law says a vehicle cannot be resold unless the owner named in the title certificate transfers that title "at the time of the sale."

But that's not always possible. Vehicle owners die. Others sell their vehicles despite misplacing their title. Some cars can pass through multiple owners without a title, making it more difficult to trace ownership. That's why the law allows tax collectors to sort it out and rule based on the evidence presented.

Of the cars he had titled during hearings, Price said, he bought one from a body shop. The others, he said, came from people who offered to sell to him. "People are all the time approaching me about cars," he said.

Two of those cars were sold to him years ago, according to the prior owners, but Price only applied for titles in his name in 2007.

Price said he needed the hearings because he lost the titles, which were not in his name.

"People lose titles all the time," he said.

Staff researcher Molly Motley Blythe contributed to this report.

Tax office rulings

In order to obtain legal titles for six vehicles he bought, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price needed a ruling from the county tax office during special administrative title hearings. The hearings were needed because the Texas Department of Transportation refused to title the vehicles, saying Price didn't have enough ownership evidence.

June 2007: The tax office granted Price title to a 1968 Oldsmobile Toronado he bought for $4,000.

September 2007: During a single hearing, the tax office granted Price title to a 1940 Ford ($5,000 sales price), a 1988 Chevrolet Silverado ($10,000 sales price), a 1971 Chevrolet Monte Carlo ($4,000 sales price) and a 1971 Ford LTD ($5,000 sales price).

Feb. 1, 2008: The tax office granted Price title to a 2005 Bentley Continental GT he bought for $128,000. (He actually paid $41,700 after trading in a 2003 Aston Martin for $86,300.)

SOURCES: Texas Department of Transportation; Dallas Morning News research

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