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Lawsuit accuses UHP, UDOT of playing favorites with towing companies

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SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah County towing company is suing the Utah Department of Public Safety, Utah Highway Patrol and Utah Department of Transportation, accusing the agencies and certain employees of favoritism resulting in more than $630,000 in losses.

The lawsuit from heavy-duty towing company West Coast Towing, filed Monday in state court, also alleges that a UHP trooper has sexually harassed and threatened one of the towing company's employees.

According to the complaint, West Coast Towing has lost at least $630,000 in revenue since October 2016 because UHP Sgt. Blaine Robbins, who oversees the towing rotation, and Rob Woolsey, a UDOT employee who oversees incident management, and others have not been properly supervising the towing rotation and have allowed Stauffer's Towing and Recovery to respond to more than its fair share of incidents.

"We don't know why it's happening, but it's happening and it's improper," Robert Sykes, the company's attorney, said at a news conference Monday. "We just know there's favoritism, and it violates the law."

Sykes said his West Coast Towing has invested more than $1.8 million in the equipment necessary to qualify to be a heavy-duty tow company included in Utah County's tow rotation. He said each job can cost between $20,000 and $100,000, depending on the size of the incident.

"What's been happening here, sadly, is this company, West Coast Towing, that has an extraordinary investment, has been following the rules, and they haven't been getting their fair share of the calls," Sykes said.

West Coast Towing owner Rob Face said the lawsuit is his company's "last resort," saying he's tried to work with UHP to address the issue but has made no progress with Robbins or his superior.

"There has to be some sort of personal gain for whatever trooper is allowing them to remain on scene," Face said. "There are definitely some pay-to-play troopers out there."

But Sykes said they don't know for sure why it's happening; they only know it's "being handled improperly."

The lawsuit also claims Robbins sexually harassed West Coast employee Heather Leyva, including an incident where he used a UHP vehicle equipped with flashing lights to pull her over and "engage in petty, flirtatious conduct on the side of the road."

"I find it offensive that any woman should have to put up with the kind of behavior I'd had to endure with Sgt. Robbins," Leyva said.

When she and Face tried to express that "this behavior is not OK," Leyva said Robbins told her: "Don't give me a reason not to like you." Leyva said she felt she had to "play along" with Robbins or she would risk "huge cost" for her company.

It's not the first time that bias in tow truck calls has been alleged. In 2000, the Ogden Police Department fired three veteran officers for allegedly steering business to one towing company over dozens on a rotation list — an incident that has been referred to as "towgate."

Under Utah law, towing companies that are qualified to respond to heavy-duty incidents — like semitrailer rollovers — are required to receive a fair share of work, and a towing rotation is required to ensure fairness.

The lawsuit alleges Stauffer's Towing "poaches" incidents by listening to police scanner traffic and showing up to jobs — behavior that Robbins and Woolsey have "condoned," the lawsuit states.

In Utah County, three qualified heavy-duty tow truck companies are included in the rotation: Stauffer's, West Coast and Larry's Towing.

Larry's Towing, based in Orem, is not included as a defendant in the suit, but owner Larry Pederson sent a letter in March calling for an investigation into rotation bias.

Stauffer's is not included in the lawsuit. The company's owner, Curtis Stauffer, did not immediately return requests for comment.

In response to requests for comment, Marissa Cote, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Public Safety emailed a prepared statement.

"Preliminary review does not show any discrepancies between tow companies or rotation," Cote said. "We are currently doing an in-depth review of the specific complaints made by West Coast Towing."

Cote said preliminary findings show from January 2017 to present, UHP has requested a total of 65 heavy tows in Utah County, with 21 calls going to West Coast, 21 calls to Stauffer's Towing, and 23 calls to Larry's Towing.

The list, Cote said, is stored by dispatch and not troopers on scene.

But Face disputed that count, denying that he's had 21 heavy-duty calls this year.

"That's extremely off," he said, adding that 65 seems like a high number for heavy-duty calls in just a little over six months. He suspected that the count reflects light jobs, not heavy jobs.

UDOT spokesman John Gleason said incident management does not call for a tow truck, noting that it's the responsibility of law enforcement on scene.

Contributing: Ladd Egan


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