News 4 investigation uncovers dozens of vehicles sold improperly from city impound
SAN ANTONIO —
A News 4 Trouble Shooters investigation led to The City of San Antonio putting a temporary halt to its auto auctions and launching an extensive audit. Our investigation found dozens of vehicles auctioned off without the owners receiving the required notification. Jaie Avila has been investigating this for four months and reports the city still doesn't know how many vehicles were improperly sold.
It involves the city-owned Growdon Impound lot. That’s where your car is taken if it's in an accident, if you're arrested or you leave it on the side of the road. The company with the contract to run the facility is required by state law to wait 35 days and send you two warning letters before it can sell your car at auction. We’ve learned in the month of March alone it failed to do that for 67 cars.
Mary Sue Pate, 77, was driving home from the grocery store last February when she was rear ended by another car.
“They called the ambulance and took me to the hospital," Pate says.
When Pate got out of the hospital she learned her car had been taken to the city's Growdon Impound lot. She says she was trying to find the money to get it out, because her other car sits inoperable in her carport.
“Now I have no transportation, I have to depend on other people and I don't like that."
So Mary Sue was not happy to find out the impound had auctioned off her car in March. She claims she never received any notification letters beforehand.
“I think it's terrible they didn't notify me that they were selling it," Pate says.
The News 4 Trouble Shooters submitted an open records request for all vehicles sold at auction without required notification in the past year. SAPD responded that researching our request would take months, and they could only provide the data for March. During that month they say five cars were sold without any notification to owners. 62 other owners were sent just the first notification letter.
SAPD says Mary Sue was one of the owners who got one warning letter, but she says she never received anything. When we asked SAPD for a copy of the certified letter sent to her, which is supposed to be saved, we were told it couldn't be found.
We went to talk to Steve Baum, who oversees the impound and auction contract for SAPD.
“That's a pretty glaring problem. I was a little taken aback," Baum told us.
Baum says 67 cars represents about 10% of the vehicles auctioned in March. He says once our open records request brought the problem to light, he temporarily stopped the weekly auctions to make sure all vehicle owners had been notified.
Now they're going back to check previous months.
“We have the same question you have: How long has this been going on? How widespread a problem is this? Or was it just an isolated incident where some employee for whatever reason just quit doing their job?" Baum asked.
The contractor that failed to make the notifications is United Road Vehicle Management Solutions, which has run the city impound lot since 2008 and the auctions since 2011. UR VMS did not respond to our calls and emails for comment.
Jaie Avila asked Steve Baum with SAPD, “Do you tell the contractor, 'Hey, make sure you make proper notification before you auction someone's vehicle?’”
“That's correct, they're aware of it,” Baum responded.
As it happens, UR VMS’s contract is about to run out, and it wants to continue running the impound and auctions. The city council will vote in August whether to stay with UR VMS or award the $48-million contract to one of three other companies.
In the past two years UR VMS, headquartered in Illinois, contributed to the campaigns of numerous city officials, including $3,500 to current councilmember Rebecca Viagran and $1,000 to council member Shirley Gonzales.
Viagran told us in an email, "I am shocked by these revelations. Now that the contract is up for renewal, this issue will definitely be a part of the council's decision-making process. We need get to the bottom of this."
Mary sue pate agrees.
“As far as I knew it was still sitting out there on the lot."
SAPD says letters have now gone out to all owners and lienholders informing them their cars were sold without proper notification. It also tells them they can make a claim against the city for the proceeds.
SAPD says that's only happened in two cases so far, but we'll keep watching to see how many more car owners were affected before this was discovered.