LAS VEGAS -- Las Vegas visitors and locals alike are being long hauled -- taken the long way by cab drivers. The practice is illegal, but happens every hour of every day, right under the noses of the state officers who are supposed to protect the public.
The Nevada Taxicab authority told 8 News Now last summer that long hauling is its number one enforcement priority. But the Channel 8 I-Team went undercover and found plenty of evidence that it is as common as ever.
"Are we going the long way? The highway, right?"
The driver didn't ask if Photojournalist Matt Adams wanted to take the more expensive route. He headed right for the tunnel -- a textbook case of long hauling. When confronted about it, he tried to cut a deal.
"I forgot to ask. Whatever you want, you can pay me," he said.
And Producer Ian Russell got the same treatment. No ask, no tell, just tunnel and freeway.
It was the same story as last summer. Every cab ride the I-Team booked, then and now, took the long way. A ride from the airport to Caesars Palace should cost $16, according to the Nevada Taxi Authority rates. The long hauls averaged $23.
Our own visual checks found between 50 and 80-percent of the taxis leaving the airport through the tunnel. Not all of them are long hauls, but most are, not only according to police but according to the drivers themselves.
Another random survey in February found about 40-percent of drivers used the tunnel. It's not long hauling if the driver asks the passenger about taking the more expensive route, but only one of the drivers we hired did so. Multiply this by hundreds of cabs every day and its clear that visitors are being scammed for millions of dollars.
Everyone seems to know about the extent of the problem, except the agency supposed to police it.
"Last year, we did 3,800 rides out of the airport. As a percentage of those, maybe one half of one percent of actual long hauls," said Taxicab Authority Administrator Gordon Walker.
Critics say there's a reason taxi boss Gordon Walker is blissfully unaware of the scope of the long hauling problem. Current and former T.A. officers say the agency has long been under the thumb of the industry it regulates.
"When the actual cab company has a hand in your business and can influence your supervisors, that is a very scary thought," said former officer Scott Lewis.
Lewis says his troubles at work began when he tried to write tickets for long hauling. He was told that if he wrote one more citation, he'd be fired.
The lone vehicle that could be used to bust drivers right in the act, in the tunnel, was taken away from airport officers.
His bosses came up with 29 different infractions that Lewis allegedly committed before they fired him. He's been fighting for reinstatement ever since.
"I think it's incredulous what's happened. You take a public servant and an individual that is enforcing the laws for the good of the community and for the good of the economy, and you basically destroy his life," said Lewis' attorney Richard "Tick" Segerblom.
"If the Taxi Authority can lie, cheat and cajole to Scott Lewis for the past year, God only knows what they would do to any of us," said a TA Employee who did not wish to be identified.
Other T.A. employees are well aware of the hammer than came down on Scott Lewis and are reluctant to speak openly. After the news stories aired, they say, there was a brief show of increased enforcement against long hauling, but then things went back to normal and T.A. employees were given new hoops to jump through.
They are still prohibited from using the lone vehicle for enforcement -- everything must be done on foot.
In addition, taxi cops must get notarized statements from passengers and those statements must be accompanied by a MapQuest printout of the intended route. There's just a tiny problem: The airport officers can't access MapQuest.
The only computer they have at the airport doesn't work, and when it did work, they were not allowed to access the Internet. And when they brought their personal computers to work, they were ordered to stop.
The net result is that long hauling is as common as ever.
Administrator Walker says the number of complaints during the past year is half of what it was, and the number of citations issued to drivers has doubled.
T.A. employees say the numbers are deceptive, and drivers know it.
"It is absolute contempt. They know they can go to court and they will get the ticket thrown out. They are literally telling the officers to screw off and there is nothing they can do," said an employee.
T.A. officers say any citation they write can be taken before an administrative officer. That officer is hired by the T.A. and serves at the agency's behest. In practice, the officers say, 80-percent of the citations they write for long hauling get tossed out or reduced to a wrist slap.
Gordon Walker, who would not give an on-camera interview, thinks the solution is to change the law by increasing the penalties. One might ask, what's the point if there is no enforcement?
Scott Lewis, the fired whistle blower, recently won a stunning victory before a state hearing officer who found the T.A. was way out of line in dumping him. We will have more on the story in the near future.
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