25 Investigates: State Police process for awarding tow jobs 'vulnerable to abuse'

The Massachusetts State Police request hundreds of tows a month, potentially generating millions of dollars every year for the private tow companies that are picked to do the work.

That is one reason Nick Jones and Charles Mora have been trying for years to get their companies on the State Police tow rotation list.

“We look at it as we don't want the whole pie just a slice,” said Jones, manager of MJS Towing in Hyde Park. “There's enough out there for everybody, not just one person.”

But, as 25 Investigates uncovered, the process used by the State Police to determine who gets to tow for the state relies heavily on an individual's judgment instead of competitive bidding.

“Some particular troopers or maybe even barracks for that matter have their favorites,” claims Mora, owner of C&L Towing in Randolph.

Jones says he has applied to get on the Milton barracks tow list and has contacted the barracks' tow officer several times over the past four years. Mora, who has been in the towing industry for more than three decades and frequently tows for the Randolph Police Department, says he has been trying to get state police tow work for the past 12 years. Each time, he says, the response has been same: There are “no vacancies” on the list. Next time.

“I'm not going away, and I want to be out there just like the rest of them and make the money just like everyone else does,” said Mora.

No bids, no contracts

25 Investigates found a process like nothing else in state government – no bids and no contracts.

By email, a State Police attorney told us: “Contracts for towing service between the Department and towing companies do not exist. Presently, the Department has memorandums of understanding (MOU) with towing companies that are placed on the rotational tow list for each barracks.”

Instead, supervisors at individual barracks across the state select the tow companies they want to work with, leading to allegations of favoritism and abuse of power.

Dean Weymouth, owner of Capeway Towing in Hyannis, has seen that abuse first hand. He was temporarily kicked off a state police tow list in 2012 after towing a car belonging to the niece of Trooper Seth Peterson, a tow officer at the Yarmouth barracks at the time.

A State Ethics Commission investigation found Peterson retaliated against Capeway by “using his position to deprive the tow company of business.”

In 2015, Peterson was docked 15 vacation days for his conduct, but has since been promoted to sergeant and assigned to Troop H.

“They abused their powers by removing me and not giving me due process or anything,” said Weymouth. “They just removed me.”

The process used by the State Police to award tow jobs has previously come under scrutiny. In 2016, the state inspector general issued a scathing report about towing on the Massachusetts Turnpike. The report concluded the State Police were "providing preferential treatment to a favored vendor."

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25 Investigates reviewed hundreds of State Police tow logs for six barracks. They reveal Millbury-based Direnzo Towing and Recovery is getting work from the Holden, Sturbridge and Millbury Barracks.  All three are in the geographic area known as Troop C, where Captain Robert Johnson is second in command.

In the Holden Barracks alone, Direnzo was the most used tow company - a total of 242 times - during a six-month period. In Millbury, Direnzo was the second most frequently used tow company. Direnzo towing is owned by John Direnzo Jr.

25 Investigates obtained pictures of John Direnzo socializing with Johnson. In one, the two are posing for a photo at a bar or restaurant. Another photo shows Direnzo’s father in Mexico with Johnson.

In March, our hidden cameras observed Johnson and Public Safety Secretary Tom Turco dining at a Worcester restaurant with Direnzo and other members of the Statewide Towing Association (STA) following a fundraiser for Governor Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. Direnzo serves as vice president of the STA.

In an email, Direnzo Jr. tells 25 Investigates he has known Capt. Johnson for more than 20 years and that his father has no affiliation with his towing company.

'Vulnerable to abuse'

“The definition of a bad procurement is when someone is able to sit at their desk and say, ‘I think I will give this contract to you, my friend,’” said Greg Sullivan, the former inspector general for the state.

Sullivan, who is the research director at the Pioneer Institute, says the current system of awarding tow jobs is highly vulnerable to abuse.

“They’ve created their own home-brewed system,” said Sullivan. “Anybody who wants to do towing, give us your company names. If we deem you are qualified you are supposedly on a revolving list. The problem is that list hasn’t been revolving too much.”

Companies that want to tow for the state must meet safety and equipment standards as well as abide by the State Police tow service agreement. The document states that a company that agrees to provide towing services for the state “is expressly prohibited from offering anything of value (including, but not limited to, money, tangible or intangible personal property, food, beverage, loan, promise service or entertainment) for the direct or indirect benefit of a member of the State Police.”

According to Sullivan, Massachusetts has some of the strictest procurement laws in the nation and they are intended to ensure the best prices for things like supplies and services that the state uses.

“People should really care a lot about this,” adds Sullivan. “What you don't want to do is to have to pay extra tow because some official has allowed a sweetheart arrangement.”

For example, let’s say you break down on Route 290 in Worcester near Kelley Square and the State Police calls a tow company in Millbury. That company is allowed to charge up to $108 for the service. In addition, they charge $3.60 per mile roundtrip after the first five miles. That amounts to a bill of $154.80. If a Worcester company located near 290 had been called, you would have saved $46.80 in mileage fees.

For Nick Jones and Charles Mora, who have been trying to get on the State Police tow list for years, a tow company’s response time and safety record, not their connections, should be the priority when it comes to helping the driving public.

A State Police spokesperson tells 25 Investigates that tow lists are maintained at the barracks level by the lieutenant in command of each station. They also added that Johnson is not involved in tow company list decisions.

The spokesperson also tells 25 Investigates' Ted Daniel that the agency is currently reviewing the way companies are added to the list and are looking to increase the transparency of the process.

25 Investigates contacted the Statewide Towing Association for comment too. STA’s president, William Johnson, said in a statement: "Under the current Massachusetts State Police tow Agreement system, it appears the goals of Quick Clearance Policy and the Traffic Incident Management System (TIMS) i.e. reducing the impact motor vehicle incidents on traffic are being met."