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Ending 8 Years of Extortion, Bunnell Quietly Invites Drivers to Get Their Money Back

| November 23, 2010

Bunnell is on the road to discovering it's not the 1950s anymore. (© FlaglerLive)

For almost eight years, the City of Bunnell got away with extortion.

Bunnell cops would impound vehicles whose owners, drivers or passengers were suspected of being involved even in minor crimes such as prostitution or possession of negligible amounts of marijuana, although state law forbids impounding in misdemeanor cases. The city would then charge a $350 “administrative” fee to the vehicle owner, in addition to hundreds of dollars usually charged by the towing company impounding the car. In many cases, neither charges nor prosecution followed the impounding, which means that the arrest had been without merit. By then it’d be too late for the vehicle owners, who were either too intimidated or too poor to fight the city, especially since the city had written an ordinance to back up its heavy hand. The administrative fee applied the moment the car was impounded. It was not contingent on charges actually sticking. The city knew it. Cops knew it. They milked it.

The racket netted the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, including $68,000 just from 2008 until last May, when a State Attorney’s investigation unraveled the scam and put an end to it. The investigation unraveled a lot more than the impounding scam: it showed how a city commissioner, Jimmy Flynt, owner of Saxon’s Towing in Bunnell, profited from the impounding by getting towing calls outside the regular rotation assigned him by the Flagler County Sheriff, and with the help of Bunnell cops. Two of those cops were fired and face felony charges. The sheriff threw Flynn out of the rotation. Flynn remains on the commission. He denies knowing the towing calls he was getting were improper, though he wasn’t quite the only wrecker who profited from Bunnell’s ordinance-ordered compulsion to impound (Roger’s Towing and John’s Towing were the other two wreckers on rotation, and remain so).

Monday evening, following the initiative of Bunnell City Commissioner Elbert Tucker, the Bunnell City Commission finally rescinded the 2002 ordinance that set the scam in motion. “The city of Bunnell no longer finds it necessary to charge administrative fees,” the new ordinance states. The vote was unanimous. The commission also put in place a mechanism through which people who had to pay the $350 fee can get their money back, essentially admitting that it had done wrong.

Elbert Tucker (© FlaglerLive)

Not that the city is going out of its way to make good on its heists. The city has records of every vehicle assessed the administrative fee. It could contact every individual owed his or her money back. But it will do so only when those individuals are from outside Flagler County. For in-county residents, the city is relying on press reports—however fleeting—to catch the attention of people who might want their money back. Even if they do, those individuals must apply for a “special master hearing” to make their case. So the burden is on vehicle owners to claim the money they’re owed, not on the city to return money it shouldn’t have taken in the first place. And Bunnell is opening only a six-month window for those hearings.

Most of the money the city collected over the years is spent already. The spending was allowed on such things as crime prevention programs, drug education, “or for other law enforcement purposes, which include defraying the cost of protracted or complex investigations,” as well as providing matching money for federal grants. Some $27,000 was used for just such a matching grant recently, reducing the $68,000 pot to $41,000. (Bunnell did not respond to requests by email and by phone for the total sum the city took in during the eight years the ordinance was in effect.)

The city doesn’t expect too many people to write in for their money, either because they won’t be aware that the city is paying back the money, or because they’re too fearful of retaliation from the police department.

A State Attorney’s investigative report released in summer details the manner in which the city and its police department went about collecting the fee. “I spoke with Zuheiay Roman Rosado,” the investigator wrote in his report. “She said that she was stopped and arrested by the BPD (BPD case# 09-8764). She said she asked if her mother could retrieve her car (her mother lives in Bunnell). She said the unknown officer took her cell phone, would not allow her to call anyone and towed her car. She said she was forced to pay $350.00 to the BPD before she could get her car from Saxon’s Wrecker. She said because she did not immediately have the $350.00 she ultimately paid $800.00 to Saxon’s just to get her car released (excess storage fees). She said she is very upset about the fees charged by the BPD and the wrecker company. She said she is a single mother with small children and only works at Taco Bell. She said does not understand why they do that in Bunnell.”

The interview prompted the investigator to draw up a long list of individuals who faced similar circumstances, and to contact them one after the other.

The case of Dennis Williams is more egregious.

“Chief Jones,” the State Attorney investigator reported, “said that Mr. Williams came to him requesting the $350.00 administrative fee waived but was denied to maintain consistency with past requests. Mr. Williams was one of the subjects stopped (1996 blue Chevrolet Lumina towed October 29, 2008) during the October 2008 traffic deployment. Mr. Williams said he was stopped by BPD officers as he pulled into the Citco at US-I and SR 100 (BPD case# 08-7387). He said he thought he was stopped because he had a white female in the car. He said he was told he was stopped for running a stop sign and no seat belt but was only issued a ticket for the seat belt. Mr. Williams said he was drinking a cup of beer but the officers ignored the beer and searched his car. He said they located a small piece of metal pipe in the back seat and said it was drug paraphernalia and needed to tow his car.

“Mr. Williams said his car was in the parking space at the Citco and he couldn’t understand why they needed to tow it. Mr. Williams said his friend’s girlfriend was with him and she could have driven but said they towed it anyway. He said the officers told him they had a right to tow his car because they found drug paraphernalia. Mr. Williams said he was taken to the BPD while the officer wrote him-a seat belt ticket. He said the officer was writing another report and said it was for the drug paraphernalia but he was eventually released and told to walk home. Mr. Williams said he later tried to obtain his car and discovered that he had to pay $350.00 to the BPD. He said he met with Chief Jones but was denied a waiver of the administrative fee. He said he responded on several occasions to the Flagler SAO regarding his paraphernalia chargé. He said one there could find a record of any violation, Notice to Appear or anything charging Mr. Williams with any crime. Mr. Williams said he went to Saxon’s Wrecker and was told he owed $700.00 and that he had to pay the BPD before he could pay Saxon’s Wrecker. Mr. Williams said he was out of work and did not have the money to pay the fees so Saxon’s Wrecker eventually sold his car at auction. Mr. Williams said he paid $3500.00 for his car and that’s all the transportation he had. He said he was very upset about loosing his car over a seat belt ticket but and didn’t know what else to do.”

Needless to say, Bunnell is not about to correct its error regarding Dennis Williams, or others who faced similarly unwarranted abuse from the city.

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24 Responses for “Ending 8 Years of Extortion, Bunnell Quietly Invites Drivers to Get Their Money Back”

  1. notasenior says:

    Extortion – the unlawful taking of money, under the color of law by an official. Generally requires showing that something of value was coercively obtained by threats or force.
    Need I say more

  2. Embarrassed says:

    What an embarrassment to the county! Bunnell City Commissioners should be ashamed!

  3. Orion says:

    When I was a youngster and my parents drove us to Florida every Christmas week, we’d come South, and small towns would have cops hiding behind billboards., awaiting someone exceeding the speed limit. In most cases, they were not exceeding the limit, but were stopped, and detained, until a judge was available. The officers would offer an option to pay now, or wait for the judge to be available. I think, this Bunnell stunt was Generation II, one step up from billboard hiding. This tactic is unacceptable, as the present administration has known this for years. I think all of the employees at Bunnell Police should spend one ceremonial day in jail, WITH NO pay for the day..

  4. Cyd says:

    That’s disgusting. I wonder if the State Attorney General or someone else can do anything about how they are handling this and that there is a time limit on it to boot. It’s not their money. And the $350 should also have interest tacked on to it. :)

  5. Cyd says:

    By the way…here are the email addresses.. write them and let them know how you feel about it.;;;;

  6. Just the Facts says:

    Sorry to be beating a dead horse; however, the city commissioners are responsible for the overall picture here. You have the old Chief of Police turned City Manager, the City Attorney, and current “Chief” of Police, who were all aware of the towing practices and actually encouraged them, still active in their positions. These are the same individuals responsible to regulate these types of issues within the city. Someone, or better said multiple someones did not do their job and should be held accountable. The city actually paid last years or this coming years computer networking fees to the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office with these “seizure funds”. Just a scratch on the surface of funds which have surely been grossly mismanaged to be gracious, and misappropriated to be more blunt. That is why,, the city will drag its feet in telling you how these funds were used. Interestingly enough, this is not the first money scandal Mr. Martinez has been involved in. There was that FBI and FDLE investigation into a certain HUD situation in Miami that I’m sure was never mentioned to the City Commissioners at the time Mr. Martinez took over as Chief of Police for Bunnell. As long as these individuals are allowed to be in control, no matter how smooth they may be able to use the art of articulation, the City of Bunnell will continue to be an embarrassment to local government, law enforcement and the democratic principles of checks and balances.

  7. Palmtree says:

    Perhaps a boycott of all Bunnell based businesses should be considered. Also, the Commissioners should demand and receive the resignation of City manager, Police Chief, City Attorney. The state should also take over running this poor excuse for a community. If the Commissioners don’t want to act they should resign too.

  8. Kurt says:

    wow…..cyd and just the facts kinda took everything i was going to say. flagerlive needs to do a follow up on this

  9. Just the Facts says:

    I like PalmTree’s idea, any suggestions how we could put some of that into motion?

  10. Haw Creek Girl says:

    Just the facts….don’t know you but you and I see eye to eye. I’m afraid we have foxes guarding the henhouse on several levels in Bunnell. Until somebody collects and busts the nasty eggs, Bunnell will continue to be the laughing stock of the County.

  11. Julia says:

    This is completely wrong, yes- but punishing the small business owner’s of Bunnell is the last thing one should consider. That does not make sense.

  12. Just the Facts says:

    The foxes are no doubt getting fatter and fatter, however; a fat fox can’t run, and so sooner than later they will be caught out there. There is nothing done in secret that will not be illuminated for all to see. Mark my words, as soon as someone has the courage (and I’m talking about a state or federal regulating agency) to turn up the heat on Mr. Martinez, he’s as good as gone. As a matter of fact, I venture to say that he is already planning a quiet exit into the sunset while he leaves the City of Bunnell broke and on the brink of disbandment as a city. Mr. Jones and the rest of the puppet men will be left to hang, and the city commissioners will be left with a city of angry citizens. Last time the water got hot for Mr. Martinez, he put in applications and was on his way back south. Fortunately for him Mr. Crosby resigned, and the Commissioners begged him to become City Manager. And the rest as they say, is history.

  13. Just the Facts says:

    I disagree with Julia, and this is why: Maybe HawkCreek will agree with me. The business owners of Bunnell, are for the most part the money making people who could have an influence in the city. They are the ones that the Commissioners and and City Officials try to please and appease. If you get robbed or burglarized and you live in the south end, or perhaps on North Anderson and Magnolia, Mr. Martinez and Mr. Jones aren’t showing up at your house ten minutes later to tell you everything is going to be alright and the suspect will be brought to justice; yet, if you happen to own a business or have significant money and influence within the city that is exactly what happens. Business owners are the primary contributors and voters and source of influence outside of government in the city of Bunnell. If they do not rise up with one voice and condemn these practices as major players in elections and what not, then the citizens should show their displeasure not only in those doing wrong, but also to those who allow it to happen. A society is more quickly ruined by a group of individuals who will do nothing in the face of moral failure and corruption than by simply those who are responsible for the evils.

  14. notasenior says:

    Palmtree is right – only a boycott will make them realize the error of their ways

  15. Bunnell Business man says:

    boycott of all Bunnell based businesses, very educated idea , would you tell me what Bunnell businesses has to do with it or Bunnell northern goverment city any better or their businesses any better, grow up.

  16. Just the Facts says:

    I just did Mr. Business man. Two comments up.

  17. Haw Creek Girl says:

    I agree to a certain extent, Just the facts….If you squeeze the businessmen then they will get active and demand change. That’s the part I agree with. The part I don’t necessarily agree with is the part about business owners and people of influence getting preferential treatment now. You only get preferential treatment if your agenda lines up with Martinez’s agenda. I know a businessman in Bunnell who gets NOTHING but grief out of Bunnell’s finest but that’s because he has integrity and has opened a lot of eyes at his own expense.

  18. Just the Facts says:

    Your absolutely right Haw Creek, that is better said. Your agenda does have to line up to Martinez’s agenda. But you at least you see my point.

  19. Justaperson says:

    Boycotting bunnell businesses doesn’t help the situation. Bunnell businesses have no control of the politics in Bunnell. They aren’t the ones who vote the Commission into or out of office. The people that do that are the CITIZENS of Bunnell. Remember, your voting district is decided by your residence, not your business location. There are plenty of businesses owners in Bunnell that live in Palm Coast, Flagler Beach, and unincorporated Flagler County. They’re your fellow citizens and neighbors.

    If you’re unhappy with the way things are done it’s the citizens job to get involved, go to a commission meeting, speak up, and vote someone else in if necessary. When was the last time you attended a meeting? Have you seen the attendance at these meetings? Also, when was the last time you checked the voter turn out in Bunnell? It’s not very large at all. If you want change and want something done, the citizens of Bunnell are the ones who have to get involved and make it happen.

  20. Just the Facts says:

    I personally have, and have spoken out. I have also seen personally how the local government caters to the local businesses. I understand how voting works and how jurisdictions are broken up. I also know that no one from Bunnell goes to the meetings. I also know that business owners get different reactions and treatment from Mr. Martinez and company. I’ve experienced it first hand. So don’t tell me that business has no control of politics in Bunnell. I have seen different with my own eyes. Regardless of the fact, the issue at hand is local government corruption. You can cry all you want about how Washington is so screwed up, but if we at a local level don’t have the courage to stand up for what is morally, ethically, and constitutionally right, then we might as well kiss democracy good bye. P. S I’ll be at the next one Justaperson-see you there :)

  21. Kurt says:

    just a person aint showin up n e where, justt a lot of talk

  22. Justaperson says:

    just the facts, i disagree with your statements about business owners getting better treatment. I personally have seen residents and business owners treated with the same respect. I have noticed business owners at commission meetings where the citizens are lacking. I also have noticed how much the commissioners care about their citizens and bend over backwards to help them but if they don’t show up and speak up, how will the commissioners know? How many times have you yourself been sitting somewhere and overhear someone speaking about something that happened at a meeting and their view point of what should have happened yet, they themselves weren’t present at the meeting? I know I’m not going to change your mind but i’m just giving my viewpoint and what I’ve personally seen.

    Also, I hope your use of “you” in the statement “you can cry all you want” was in more of a general sense than aimed at me as that was my first post on flagler live and i don’t recall crying in my post.

    kurt, you’re incorrect. I’m a frequent attendee of bunnell meetings.

  23. Just the Facts says:

    Justaperson, we can agree to disagree…Unless you are a commissioner, or the City Manger posting a post, you couldn’t of gotten any closer to the inside than what I’ve witnessed. That being said, I’m sure not every single business gets special treatment, only those that are vocal and have influence in the city and with the voting public. To get into everything that I’ve personally seen would be to long of a post, and it has nothing to do with any of my intentions. “you can cry all you want” was generalized and not at you. I don’t argue or try to pick a fight on an internet news paper, nor do I really feel like I need to defend my statements even though I have attempted to let you see where I am coming from. Like I said the real issue is the corruption that goes on in the city. As far as the commissioners, well I have seen where they allow a big business to move in despite the fact that its essentially destroying a long time citizen’s property. Wheres the justice in that? I’m sure there were deeper issues at work, but the bottom line was, a couple of the commissioners admitted to going to the mans house, acknowledging that the business was destroying his property and pretty much saying oh well…That may be good for the city finances, but it certainly wasn’t bending over backwards for the citizen. That’s just one account. There are plenty more. What happens when the issues are brought to the commissioners attention? Nothing.

  24. Justaperson says:

    Just the facts, I am not a commissioner or the city manager. I can tell the big business you’re referring to is WastePro and I can tell you the commission did not bend over backwards to allow that business to come in.

    :) Happy Holidays.

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