Taxis are lined up along the Loews Santa Monica Hotel Tuesday afternoon. Some cab drivers are saying doormen at continuing to pressure them to pay bribes or 'cookies' in exchange for lucrative fares, a long-standing practice that is illegal under the city's taxi franchise system.

(photo by Brandon Wise)

CITYWIDE — Doormen at some of Santa Monica’s most luxurious hotels are continuing to pressure cab drivers to pay them bribes or “cookies” in exchange for more lucrative fares, a long-standing practice that is now illegal under City Hall’s new taxi franchise system, according to interviews with drivers and taxi companies.

Cabbies with one of the five franchised companies told the Daily Press this week that they will not jeopardize their careers by paying cookies and now avoid certain hotels where doormen have tried to extort them.

When the drivers refused to pay a bribe, worth roughly 10 percent of a fare, they said the doormen either threatened them not to return or skipped them in the queue, only calling on them when a guest wanted to go a short distance and hence pay a smaller fare.

“It was hurting my pocket book before, but that was the way you did business,” a cab driver of 22 years told the Daily Press about paying cookies. He did not want his named used out of fear of retribution by certain doormen.

“Now you can’t give cookies. It’s the law, and we’re getting skipped. We’re getting no good fares, which used to make up for paying cookies, and now my pocket is really getting hurt.”

Under the taxi franchise system, it is illegal for a cab driver or cab company to pay out cookies or enter into any exclusive agreement with a hotel, restaurant or other business in an effort to gain exclusivity, said Don Patterson, City Hall’s business and revenue manager. If caught, a driver and the company they work for pay fines (as much as $2,500 for the company per violation and $1,050 from the driver for a third offense) and could lose their right to operate in Santa Monica.

There are no penalties mentioned in the franchise law for those accepting cookies.

“We have received comments and complaints from taxi drivers,” Patterson said. “At this point we are investigating those complaints and also exploring other avenues … to regulate this activity.”

That includes possibly amending the franchise law to include penalties for businesses caught taking cookies, as is done in other cities, Patterson said.

A taxi franchise coordinator was recently hired by City Hall to be responsible for the day-to-day management of the system, which should help with enforcement, Patterson added.

The franchise system, which dramatically reduced the number of cabs operating in the city, placing a cap of 300, went into effect on March 1. It was intended to cut down on traffic by reducing cabs, help create a uniform fare system and feature taxi companies with well-trained, safe drivers and cabs that were more environmentally-friendly. Another goal was to reduce competition and in exchange help drivers earn a decent living.

Patterson said March was all about introducing people to the new taxi system and helping them adjust. Now, it’s time to crack down. He said the Santa Monica Police Department, specifically the Traffic Services Division, enforces the franchise law and is responsible for investigating cookie complaints.

“For the franchise system to be successful, it is important for people to follow the rules,” Patterson said.

SMPD Sgt. Jay Trisler confirmed officers are investigating complaints, but that didn’t put drivers who spoke with the Daily Press at ease. They said they have seen no enforcement so far and believe City Hall should dedicate more resources to catch those paying and those receiving bribes. Drivers said doormen are not subtle and could easily be caught.

“The city is ready to swoop down on us if they see us giving a bribe but at the same time they are not doing anything about the doormen,” said a cab driver who has been working in Santa Monica for two years. He did not want his name published for fear of losing his job.

“We want this franchise system to work and it will if it is run how it was designed,” he said. “The hotels should be doing stings of their own and say to their employees that if any of them are caught, they are going to be fired. That would help send a message.”

Ash Alkishawi, CEO of Metro Taxi, which has a Santa Monica franchise, said the company has a strict policy against paying cookies.

“We talked to all of our drivers and made it very clear that if we catch any of them giving cookies, they will be fired,” he said. “Our drivers are suffering because others are still paying cookies.”

The owner of another franchise taxi company who did not want his name revealed said doormen can make a “pretty decent living” off of the cookies and tips received and won’t give up that cash without a fight.

“They’ve gotten used to this income and to all of a sudden see it disappear, they’re not going to be happy about it,” he said.

Wolfgang Jonas, the general manager of the Fairmont-Miramar Hotel, said he was not aware of any of his employees asking for cookies and said since the franchise system was put into action he has noticed better service provided to his guests by the companies with franchises.

“If drivers are willing to come to us we’ll speak with them and are happy to address anything that is wrong,” Jonas said. “So far this hasn’t come up.”

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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