A Cabbie's Crusade
Steve Satterwhite

A Cabbie's Crusade

The European gentleman, midforties, a slim, bespectacled fellow in a business suit, stands at the lip of the curb just outside the Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Resort in Miami Beach on a gorgeous winter afternoon. He's just checked out of his room and asked a concierge to call him a cab to the airport. One soon pulls into the semicircular drive and glides to a stop in front of him. Inside the yolk-colored No. 829 is Javier Peña, proving a point.

This isn't his fare. But he feels justified in stealing it from the blue Checker Cab minivan two cars behind him because he knows that cab is stealing it from someone else, a driver who plays by the rules. "Here, look at this," Peña hisses, pointing to the valet stand, where a young man in a crisp white guayabera is speaking into a phone. "He's on the phone to the mafia." A devilish look flashes across his broad Dominican face and disappears into the thick bristle of black-and-white beard jutting wildly from his chin. He scrambles out of the taxi to steer the businessman into the back of his vehicle, hustling to get the job done before he's spotted and kicked out of the roundabout by hotel security. "Airport," the man directs, and Peña begins to zoom up Collins Avenue, cackling mysteriously into his rearview mirror.

Suddenly he swerves into the drive of the Loews Hotel, just a couple of dozen yards up the street. He jerks to a stop next to two taxi drivers languidly leaning against their vehicles. "You gotta get out," he mumbles to the confused and slightly alarmed passenger. To the bemused drivers, Peña tenders an unexpected boon, an easy $24 fare, no strings attached. "Here, take this guy," he offers. "He needs to go to the airport and I can't take him." The businessman clambers uncertainly out and into one of the other taxis.

Peña pulls back onto Collins, crosses it, and turns onto Sixteenth Street. "See that?" he crows. "I stole that guy's fare and I didn't pay the eight dollars he was going to pay for it." His mood quickly downshifts: "I was hoping that [Checker driver] would say something to me. I'd punch him out. That fucker's a door-buyer."

Peña is not the only cabbie who'd like a piece of that Checker driver, and the hundreds like him who routinely undercut honest drivers by paying an illicit kickback to the valets and hotel employees who direct the most profitable jobs to them. These employees have enormous control over who gets the fare because they usually make the cab-service call for customers leaving their front doors.

Taxi drivers call it "the buying of the doors," and the appellation "door buyer" is uttered like a curse by cabbies outside the ring. There has always been some of that kind of palm-greasing in the industry, but it's become much worse following the 9/11 tourism slump. And while it's most evident along the county's eastern edge, from Aventura to Key Biscayne, door-buying goes on all over Miami-Dade. Many drivers, however, claim that in this most lucrative stretch of the tourism corridor, 80 to 90 percent of hotels and condominiums are part of the conspiracy.

The informal groups of door-buyers and sellers, once divided almost exclusively into ethnic clusters, have become organized cartels spanning every nationality. Drivers in these cartels pay kickbacks of as much as 30 to 50 percent in return for a guaranteed fare. A $24 ride from South Beach to the airport, for instance, gets bitten down to $16 or $12 by the time the kickback is paid. Drivers who refuse to pay must subsist on the three- and five-dollar jobs hauling elderly ladies eight blocks to the grocery store, or the drunken club-hopper back to his nearby hotel. It's a $500 civil penalty if door-buyers are caught, but they seldom are. Just a few dozen have been hit in stings conducted by county code enforcement and Miami Beach police in recent months. Sometimes the galling inequity of it all provokes the more hot-headed drivers into fights outside hotels and in taxi lots, threatening to kill each other.

Boris Shvartsman, president of Central Cab, the dominant company operating in Miami Beach, says the once infrequent practice has grown like a metastasizing cancer. "An [honest] driver who work today can't make his living because the doors are all bought from First Street all the way to Golden Beach," he complains through a thick Russian accent. "From Sunny Isles they pay fifteen dollars for airport job now.

"This is good be doorman, no?" he continues, cocking his head to one side. "Good job. Easy money." He laughs.

Miami-Dade Taxi No. 829 cruises down Biscayne Boulevard, cuts right onto NE Eighth Street, past the Miami Arena, then jags south on NW Second Avenue. The destination: the Flagler Street offices of the Passenger Transportation Regulatory Division (PTRD), a little-known county agency that imposes a degree of order on the naturally unruly taxi industry. Javier Peña has a complaint to register. Again.

As he drives, keeping a discerning eye on the other taxis roaming the downtown streets, Peña recalls the incident almost two years ago that converted his basically entrepreneurial soul into that of a budding labor activist. "What it was, I had a [traffic] accident," he begins. "I was in a Yellow Cab. I wasn't cited. The other lady was cited."

But then, a problem. Peña and other drivers claim it's common practice for some cab-company owners to make drivers who get into accidents cough up a penalty fee if they want to continue driving for them, even though the cabs are insured. This is exactly what the owner of Yellow Cab did, Peña alleges. "Les Eisenberg asked me for $1000 -- for what I don't know," he snorts derisively. "A gift maybe."

After that he began meeting with other disillusioned drivers trying to get the county to address their many gripes about an industry they believe exploits them. When the September 11 terrorism attacks devastated local tourism, it boosted a dormant effort to unionize the approximately 3800 taxi drivers based in Miami-Dade County. Peña was out in front -- bringing the drivers' plight to the attention of local media, bellowing demands at county commission meetings, helping organize elaborate protests that included a long, slow motorcade by hundreds of drivers through the heart of Miami and rallies on Watson Island and at the Orange Bowl. "Now they label me as a troublemaker," he chuckles.

Peña parks in a city lot under I-95. He drops a quarter in the meter, then notices its red light keeps blinking. "These things never work, just like the rest of the county," he grouses, popping a fist onto the side to make his quarter spill back out. He pockets it and grins, nodding at a crumpled coat the shape of a homeless man sleeping under a meter two spaces away. "Then these guys get the quarters." He shakes his head at the trickle-down economic disorder that seems to rule Miami.

The economics of the taxi industry are similarly farcical. The entire system is driven by little pieces of paper, taxi permits issued by the county, that allow a cab on the road. Most of the permits are not owned by drivers, but are leased to them (usually by individuals or corporations controlled by taxi companies) by the year, week, or day. The drivers also pay other expenses, such as insurance, car maintenance, radio dispatch, and gas. Those who don't own their own cars must rent them from a taxi company. With all these expenses, it can easily cost a driver upward of $70 a day just to keep a cab on the road.

During the worst of the tourism slowdown following 9/11, drivers were bringing in just $20 to $30 a day at best. Yet the companies threatened that if drivers didn't keep paying their leases, they'd lose the taxis and be prevented from working in the industry again when the good times returned. As a result many drivers went into debt, knowing they might not find work elsewhere in job-poor Miami. Being forced to pay hundreds of dollars a week to the taxi companies even though there was no money to be made on the streets inspired an uncommon cohesiveness among the independent-minded drivers for a few months in late 2001 and early 2002.

Randolph Wynns, a fifteen-year driver, gave up his cab and found temporary work until the worst had passed. "I said to them: 'I can't make money for you. I'm not making it.' At Yellow guys were making $150 a week. [Yellow would] take it all and make them owe for the rest. They'd end up owing $5000. They're still paying money they didn't make a year and a half after 9/11. It's incredible the way they abuse these people."

Wynns, Peña, and several others say during that time some of the companies got tough on drivers who couldn't pay, repossessing cars, equipment, and permits. Yellow Cab was particularly severe, they allege. Peña says Les Eisenberg hired a gang of repo men led by an ex-cop named Lozano. "He's the cop who shot the black guy in 1989 and caused the riots in Overtown," he relates, referring to former Miami officer William Lozano, who shot a black motorcyclist speeding down an Overtown street in 1989, resulting in the deaths of the driver and his passenger and sparking a riot (hotshot attorney Roy Black got him off four years later). "He's the enforcer for Les Eisenberg," continues Peña. "He rips stuff out of cars when people fall behind in lease payments. He'll take the permits, the radio, the meter, even money laying around from the fares."

Adds Wynns: "They were even going to our houses with a truck and tow chain. They had about eight guys with guns and everything. And there's nothing we could do. I remember one incident they tried to take the meter out of a car at the airport and the driver hit [one of the men] in the head."

Les Eisenberg denies he asked Peña for money. He maintains that Yellow Cab broke ties with Peña because, after the accident, he allegedly refused to produce his taxi-driver's registration to police and was "nasty."

"We refused to do business with him ever again," Eisenberg says, adding that Peña is an "aggressive" driver with a "bad attitude." As to his employment of Lozano and crew, he acknowledges they repossessed radios, meters, and other equipment from a score of drivers after 9/11, but claims he had no choice -- he had to protect his investment. "It was one of the more depressing times for me," he offers.

With all this going on, it wasn't difficult to stir the drivers to protest and to pressure the county commission. Some asked for a temporary suspension of lease payments, others for the county to issue them their own permits (a perennial request) so they would be free of the taxi lords altogether. The county in turn urged the taxi companies to temporarily lower their lease prices, but balked at issuing hundreds of free permits because it would destabilize the industry's pricing structure.

Once the tourism economy began limping forward again, the hot core of cabbie discontent slowly cooled, eventually dissolving into infighting and the scramble for work. But Peña says the average driver is still getting screwed. "Most taxi drivers don't know anything but to get in the cab in the morning and drive twenty hours," he sighs. "Some of them live in their cabs."

Years ago Dade County and various cities within it issued permits to operate taxicabs inside their respective borders, subject to certain regulations. For instance, Central Cab was the only company allowed to operate in Miami Beach, while other companies had virtual monopolies in other cities or in unincorporated Dade. In 1982 a crafty entrepreneurial legend named Sigmund "Ziggy" Zilber (who owned dozens of permits and a taxi company) persuaded the county to take over regulation of all cabs countywide, and to create a borderless system that let drivers roam wherever the fares were. As a result the taxi permits, which owners purchased for a virtual song in the Fifties, Sixties, and early Seventies, became much more valuable. And the business became a lot meaner. "The industry went to shit," observes one Central Cab driver.

A taxi permit is a commodity that can be bought, sold, and leased by whoever owns it. Since the county controls the number of permits available (currently 1934), and that number doesn't change much from year to year, there's a private market for them. The going rate has risen steadily, from around $29,000 in 1990 to as much as $100,000 today. That means very few drivers, especially new ones, can ever afford their own permit. County rules introduced in 1998 mandate that permits can only be sold to people who are full-time drivers, but there are loopholes that are often abused.

Taxi companies like Yellow Cab, Super Yellow, or Flamingo Taxi lease the permits from the owners and then sublease them to one or more drivers by the twelve-hour shift, by the day, or per week. Aggressive permit owners can and do shop around for cab companies that will offer the highest price, with companies passing along the cost to the drivers. That's the argument the taxi companies made to the county when they were pressured to drop their lease prices -- that permit holders were inflating the lease prices by moving the permits to the highest bidder, knowing that companies needed to keep as many drivers on the road as possible. But some of the whining was more than a little disingenuous -- certain taxi-company proprietors are also permit-holders. Peña thinks the system is rigged in favor of the companies because their principals often contribute to political campaigns and hire high-powered lobbyists like Chris Korge, a lawyer/lobbyist for Yellow Cab.

In Peña's opinion, drivers should be the ones with permits, not rich men like Yellow's Eisenberg, Central's Shvartsman, or the other relative handful of families that own or control through power-of-attorney arrangements a majority of the permits. Drivers account for less than twenty percent of permit owners while hundreds of other permits are owned by people who live all over the county, the state, even in foreign countries. They are routinely renewed each year and can remain active almost indefinitely. A few years ago the county did establish an annual lottery in which licensed drivers compete for about two dozen new permits. Lottery winners pay $15,000 to claim their prize, or $10,000 for drivers who primarily serve inner-city areas.

Peña takes the elevator at 140 W. Flagler to the ninth floor, Consumer Services Department, which houses the Passenger Transportation Regulatory Division. He's instantly recognized by everyone in the office, where he's treated like a good-natured but annoying relative who frequently drops by unannounced. "I need to see Leo," he tells the receptionist.

"Javier, until you shave that beard, you're the enemy," she sasses him. "You look like Fidel Castro backwards."

"Yeah -- ha, ha," he responds automatically, having been teased about his striking, mullah-style facial hair many times. (Some of his fellow taxi drivers call him the Taliban.) His perpetually manic grin and frequent emission of a deep, sarcastic chuckle do nothing to dispel the image of a roguish guerrilla fighting a lost cause.

Eventually Leo Melbourne, a thin, older Jamaican gentleman wearing glasses and a palpable air of resignation, arrives in the waiting area to escort Peña back to his cubicle. Melbourne supervises the code inspectors who watchdog the taxi industry, and thus is a repository for complaints.

Peña starts in on him immediately. "Leo, you know what they're doing at Central ..." He tells Melbourne that operators at Central Cab in Miami Beach are refusing to give drivers proper receipts for the lease payments they make, a violation of county rules. Melbourne explains that the drivers themselves will have to come forward to make the complaint, if they want citations written. Peña points out the drivers are afraid for their jobs, but Melbourne is firm; he can't issue a citation based on third-hand information. He sighs and looks briefly at the motto tacked up in his cubicle: "Revenge is not Justice. Temper Justice with Mercy. Seek Justice Always. Never Revenge."

On the way out of the office, Peña runs into PTRD director Joe Mora, a beefy, ruddy-featured man who chats agreeably with him. Peña registers his complaints with Mora as well. "Papou, you know about all those drivers who buy the doors on the Beach," he says agitatedly. "They're killing us."

Mora replies that many times the drivers are doing it to themselves. "They cut each other's throats," he observes.

"They have to," Peña argues.

"For scraps?" Mora queries, shaking his head. Mora says the drivers have to start coming forward with specific complaints if they want the system to change. "You know, I'm the guy who issues citations," he reminds.

Peña's cell phone rings and Mora jokes, "Just answer, Bellevue."

On the way down, the elevator goes haywire, stopping every two floors and showing the wrong floor numbers. "Of course," chortles Peña darkly. "This is Miami-Dade County. Even the elevators are crazy."

Once outside, Peña expresses his frustration with the county bureaucracy, but he's not ready to give up. "Mora, he's a good guy," he allows. "He's got good intentions, but he's got to follow orders."

A few days after his attempts to interest the county in shenanigans at Central Cab, Peña shows up for lunch at Edelweiss on Biscayne Boulevard with bad news. He's lost his cab.

His taxi-driver's license (also called a chauffeur's registration) expired two months ago, but he'd been driving on it anyway. Drivers must renew the license every year, but Peña didn't bother. He figured the county wouldn't approve it "because I'm the troublemaker for them." He says county inspectors caught up with him one day and issued a bunch of tickets. Then the owner of the company he drove for took back his taxi.

"I knew these things were going to happen," he shrugs. He recalls that in February 2002, when he was pushing the county to enforce the codes designed to protect driver rights, he was threatened by the owner of one cab company. He even drew up an affidavit for a police incident report stating that the owner threatened him outside county offices. Peña's account paraphrased the alleged threat: "Taxi drivers that have interfered and opposed the taxi companies in Miami in past years have been known to turn up missing and dead and you better stop!"

During the spring and summer of 2002, Peña and a small group of like-minded drivers began collecting information about specific incidents of cab companies, permit owners, or other drivers breaking the rules. This wasn't difficult as Peña was the unofficial leader of a cab stand (designated curbside spaces where taxis wait for customers) at Sixteenth Street just west of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Drivers at the stand get a lot of business from the Loews Hotel, which is directly across the street.

Peña became leader of the stand because he has a loud voice and a quick mind, and used these assets to impose a semblance of order on the other drivers, who were often jockeying for position, arguing, and irritating nearby store owners. He spent a lot of time talking to drivers and picking up their many grievances about shady cab-company operators, overzealous enforcement officers, and the door-buying racket.

He began recording specific incidents of door-buying, complete with dates, cab numbers, and other crucial details, and sending notice of them to the county, the City of Miami Beach, and tourism officials such as Stuart Blumberg, president of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association. He also sent them to the owners of hotels, cab companies, and car-rental agencies involved in the incidents. He began receiving threats from angry drivers he'd identified. One day last summer, just before climbing into his cab, he noticed a bullet hole in the driver's door. A warning, he figured. A Peruvian taxi driver friendly with Peña (who asked to remain anonymous) says word went out among drivers that to associate with Peña was to bring trouble on yourself, either from door-buying drivers or irritated county inspectors. "They want fusilar," he whispers, making a gun shape out of thumb and forefinger to illustrate to shoot. "Everybody a friend of Javier, they want kill him." He drags a finger across his throat.

Meanwhile another group of drivers at Central Cab was complaining to company president Boris Shvartsman that they couldn't make an honest buck because of the door-buyers. Shvartsman, a stocky Russian Jew who emigrated to Miami at age 40 to become a construction engineer but ended up driving a taxi for years instead, was sympathetic. At 63 years old, gray-haired and full-faced, his tiny black eyes are shrewdly appraising but not unkind. Tattooed on his left hand in fading dark ink: Odessa 1940. "I got this when I was eleven years old," he says sheepishly, embarrassed at a childish whim to mark the date and place of his birth on his skin. His years as a driver have also stamped Shvartsman with an appreciation for the rigors of the cabbie's life. "I was taxi driver eighteen years," he reflects. "This is very hard job. Dangerous, a lot of robbers, and 100 degrees in the summertime. But not so many drivers then. You could make money. Driver today, he work twelve hours, collecting three-dollar jobs."

Central Cab is unusual in the local taxi industry because it functions less like a corporation and more like a collective. The company is composed of about 85 permit owners who individually lease them to drivers. They also elect a slate of officers to manage their assets, including the two-story headquarters at 740 Alton Rd. The company itself provides a radio-dispatch service and insurance to drivers for a monthly fee, and holds a weekly "court" composed of Central officers, who rule on minor disputes between drivers. Roughly 220 cabs and 650 to 700 drivers work under the Central Cab banner.

Shvartsman says door-buying, which became a noticeable phenomenon a few years ago, is now rampant among drivers at all the companies servicing beach towns. The effects are worse because business, even during the high season, is down from past years. "I complained to the City of Miami Beach, to PTRD," he remembers. "I explain to the people from PTRD how easy it is. Companies like Flamingo, Miami-Dade, Sunshine, Century -- these companies don't have radio service. How drivers for these companies get jobs to hotels? They got a telephone from the doorman." Shvartsman says his pleas were met with little enthusiasm. "Everybody tell me: 'Okay, sure, sure. No problem. We help you,'" he recalls. "I say it's not me that's needs help. It's the drivers."

To make matters more difficult, Shvartsman says, the City of Miami Beach began reducing the number of curbside taxi stands. Shvartsman believes it's the result of door-buyers pressuring the city by complaining about disorderly drivers who upset business owners. Regardless, the reduction has forced drivers who want to make money on the Beach to join the door-buying gangs.

The city's parking director, Saul Frances, has heard this theory. "The cab industry feels that the buying of the doors is a vicious cycle," he explains. "That if the drivers don't participate in door-buying, then the hotels will get cab stands removed by complaining about the drivers, thus facilitating more door-buying." Could that be true? "It's possible," says Frances noncommittally, adding that he responded to the drivers' concerns by actually increasing stand spaces by about twenty taxis.

Who are the door-buyers? According to Peña and a number of other drivers, one of the biggest cartels is run by a group of Brazilians. Peña maintains a list of 246 hotels, apartment buildings, and condos whose employees (or those of valet companies servicing the front doors) he says participate in the buying and selling of fares. The list, which he got from driver friends, includes a radio code, the address, and the going rate at each place. Another driver from Central Cab, who doesn't know Peña, put together a different, smaller list of establishments where he was personally solicited for money.

The way the system works is simple: The concierges and valets call a number provided by cartel drivers and someone at the other end dispenses jobs to drivers through cell phones, two-way radios, and beepers. Sergio Gomez, a Brazilian who used to work for Central Cab (he currently drives for Super Yellow), says when he first got into the Miami taxi industry about two years ago he was immediately approached by fellow Brazilian drivers who advised him to join the game. So he did. "They tell you you have to pay the hotel or you can't make money," he recalls. "They give you a radio for jobs." It cost Gomez $32 a week to get the radio, plus $8 or more each time he was tipped to a moneymaking fare waiting at a hotel. "Sometimes they're already waiting with a hand out like this," he says, stealthily holding one hand behind his back, palm up.

Later Gomez quit the racket because he figured it wasn't worth the hassle. "You start thinking, with all you're paying [the kickback plus the weekly fee to stay in the program], at the end of the day, you're not making anything," he says, tapping the brim of his Old Navy hat thoughtfully. "And the other drivers are angry. They want to kill you."

Shvartsman says it's not just the Brazilians: "This Brazilian mafia, they call it. Is not only Brazilians. It's Russian and Cuban and Haitian who buy doors. From Central Cab, too, a lot of Russian drivers are involved. I remember [the county] tell me: 'Boris, before you start complain, clean your own house.'" He shrugs. "I said, 'Driver and I, we don't care who it is steal money from our pocket. Is the same result.' Only county can stop it."

Peña says the Brazilian-led door-buying mostly occurs during the day, when airport traffic is heaviest. To demonstrate, he pulls out a cell phone and dials the number of one of the known door-buying operations. It's the evening hour. There's no answer. "See, they only operate during the day," he confirms. "The guy on the line probably won't even speak English because he's waiting for his buddy to call from the hotel. You walk up to one of these guys on Lincoln Road or Ocean Drive during the day and ask them to take you down the street, they won't do it. Only airport jobs." Peña is frustrated because, in his mind, the door-buying is so blatant. He doesn't understand why the county hasn't shut it down.

Shvartsman wonders the same thing. After his pleas went largely unheeded last year, he sent an emissary to see A.C. Weinstein, a columnist for the weekly SunPost, with a request for him to expose how the practice was hurting honest taxi drivers. Weinstein wrote a column in the paper's August 15 edition. Drivers affiliated with Peña then kept an eye on the SunPost newsracks and produced the following notation worthy of a CIA field report: "On 8-16-02, our field surveillance tracked a 'rogue driver' gathering the 8-15-02 edition from SunPost news containers on the streets of Miami Beach ... apparently for the purpose of removing from circulation and public awareness. The publications were clandestinely retrieved after the rogue driver discarded them in a dumpster."

Around this time, a meeting was held in Miami Beach regarding the door-buying problem. Among the attendees were, from the Beach: Mayor David Dermer, Commissioner Matti Bower, parking director Saul Frances, city tourism guru Michael Aller, a police captain, and Stu Blumberg; and from the county: Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, consumer services director Sheila Rushton, and PTRD head Joe Mora. An activist driver from Central Cab, who asked to be given an alias to avoid backlash from other drivers, had requested the meeting because earlier in the year the county and the city had signed an interlocal agreement allowing city police to enforce county ordinances regarding taxis. This driver, whom we'll call Alex, says the goal of the meeting was to kick around ideas about increased enforcement, and whether the city could pass its own rules holding the hotels partially responsible for the unsavory activity taking place at their front doors. Alex says the meeting went well, with all parties agreeing in principle to do what they could about the problem.

Then a major roadblock -- the hotel association wanted to kill the effort. "Stu Blumberg gets up and tells the mayor I'm a fucking liar and [the door-buying] is not happening," he recalls. "Everybody was stunned."

That was pretty much the end of the meeting. Blumberg didn't return phone calls requesting comment, but several other attendees had varying accounts of the meeting. "The hotel industry, their position is while this problem may be happening, they haven't detected it in their operations at their hotels," allows parking director Frances. "I don't know that Stu thinks there's a problem."

Joe Mora's eyes widen slightly at the mention of this incident. "Mr. Blumberg, who we meet with on a regular basis, has always been more than receptive and cooperative in working with us," he hastens to declare. "Whether there was a sidebar [conversation], I can't answer any of that."

Alex the driver persisted, getting Matti Bower to agree to propose a city ordinance that would penalize hotel owners by temporarily suspending their valet permit if employees were found to be participating in door-buying. Through Bower's office, Alex submitted the proposal to the city attorney's office for vetting before being brought to the commission. Alex claims the paperwork went nowhere, and later Bower told him she didn't want to sponsor the ordinance, preferring to wait for the county to handle the problem. "Matti's running for office this year," Alex contends. "The hotel money got to her. They want to squash this."

Alex believes the hotel owners are not interested in the petty problems of taxi drivers, whom they consider the bottom feeders of the tourism industry. While they are probably not getting a direct payoff from the door-buying, Alex thinks hotel owners and managers would rather have their employees hustling taxi drivers for extra cash than thinking up ways to steal from the hotels or their guests.

For her part, Matti Bower says Alex doesn't have the story quite right. She says she was working on the proposed ordinance to help the drivers, but "people" don't want it and there's a tricky question of whether the door-sellers are employees of the hotel or a valet company. She claims to have lost contact with Alex for a period, but recently met with him and a Beach police captain. "The police verified it was a problem," she says. "I'm going to bring an ordinance to the commission March 19 because it's not fair and needs to be corrected." Bower adds that she's not yet sure what form the ordinance would take.

Miami Beach City Manager Jorge Gonzalez, in a recent memo to city commissioners, disclosed that city police and the county have been working together to conduct regular stings in an effort to catch the door-buyers. The effort so far has resulted in ten $500 citations for door-buying issued at Beach hotels since August (plus nearly 300 tickets issued to taxi drivers for smaller offenses).

Alex, the driver, thinks the county wants to curb the door-buying epidemic, but like many bureaucracies is understaffed for the job. "The problem is they've got like 27 inspectors to cover the whole county, and they can't arrest people," he explains. "At max, they can issue a $500 fine, if they can catch them. For most guys, maybe one fine a year is a write-off, the cost of doing business."

Joe Mora seems like a nice enough fellow, if cautious and bureaucratic. A question about whether the county, with only 27 inspectors to regulate taxis, jitneys, limos, buses, and other forms of licensed passenger transportation, can muster the manpower to seriously tackle door-buying in Miami Beach, elicits the following response: "Ma'am, we are utilizing our resources to address the issue. But again, there are other issues." That would be a no, then? "We believe we're adequately prepared to enforce the ordinance," Mora clarifies. So, yes? "We are actively enforcing this, but we are also enforcing all the other ordinances," he adds weakly.

Is door-buying the big problem taxi drivers seem to think it is? "I wouldn't say it's a big problem, but it does create an unfair playing field," Mora affirms. According to his office, county code-enforcement officers made 1750 visits to 224 hotels countywide in the last six months of 2002 with the aim of catching, or at least discouraging, door-buying, but issued just 31 $500 citations for the offense. Mora says it's difficult because the violators basically have to be caught in the act. But he says just the presence of the officers, both county code enforcement and Beach police, at the hotels inhibits the practice.

At a smoothie shop on Alton Road and Sixteenth Street, a handful of taxi drivers sit on a couch and loveseat in the corner of the store. One of them runs over to the Dunkin' Donuts for coffee, returns with it, and plops down on the loveseat. Peña recounts with an odd relish the events of an evening a few weeks prior, when he had a run-in with county inspectors. Five drivers were standing around on 23rd Street, chatting and complaining, as usual, about the state of the industry. "All of a sudden two inspectors pull up at 50 miles an hour and blocked everybody in," Peña sputters. "It was like Starsky and Hutch. One of the inspectors says to me: 'Give me your fucking [taxi driver] license.' I said, 'Fuck you, I'm not driving. I don't have to give you my license.'"

Peña explains that the inspectors thought he'd been driving a friend's taxi, even though his license had expired. "The inspector says, 'I've been looking for you for three days now.' My friend was around the corner getting coffee, so they towed his car. Then they called his boss and told her that he was letting me drive his cab and I was a troublemaker. And she threatened him if he ever let me drive his car. But I wasn't driving. It's the county coming after me. It's insane!"

"We're not after Mr. Peña," counters Joe Mora wearily. "We're not after any driver. Issues of compliance is all we're interested in."

Peña is unconvinced. "I'm going to sue them for harassment," he mutters. "This isn't the end of me."


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