Virginia Towing Operator Spent Thousands to Lobby Against Regulations

Advanced Towing has repeatedly been accused of predatory practices

The owner of one of Northern Virginia's largest towing companies spent several thousand dollars to try to stave off a veto by Gov. Terry McAuliffe on legislation loosening towing regulations, newly filed lobbying and campaign finance records show.

John O'Neill, the owner of Advanced Towing, hired two of McAuliffe's longtime friends as lobbyists for $5,000 each and made a $1,500 campaign contribution to a Democratic state senator who initially opposed the bill but who McAuliffe said was later a key advocate in convincing him to sign it.

Those involved, including McAuliffe, said O'Neill's spending was pointless, as it was a full-court press by Democratic senators and the business community that convinced the governor to back the bill.

Advanced Towing is the dominant towing company in Arlington County and has frequently been the subject of unflattering reports of its business practices. News4 reported that the company was the subject of 155 complaints to police from 2012 to 2014.

The company was in the news in April 2015 after ESPN reporter Britt McHenry was caught on video berating an Advanced Towing employee after McHenry's car was towed.

Last year the Arlington County Board of Supervisors approved new rules designed to crack down on what supporters said were "predatory'' practices by towing companies. The most significant change was that businesses would have to approve each individual tow during business hours rather than giving towing companies blanket authorization, a change known as the "second signature'' provision.

Arlington is a dense urban area where parking spots are costly and often hard to come by. 

Advanced Towing has repeatedly been accused of predatory practices. Drivers say they leave their vehicles for a moment to go into a store or use an ATM, and their cars disappear.

In one case, a man says the company caused $1,200 worth of damage to his car when Advanced Towing hauled it away, even though he had a valid parking pass. In another case, a father says he ran into CVS and left his children, age 17 and 7, in the car, only to have an Advanced Towing truck hook it up to a tow truck with the children inside. They stopped when the little boy started shouting.

Opponents of the new law said the spending highlights how businesses with deep pockets are often at an advantage politically in Virginia, which has a virtually nonexistent consumer protection lobby.

"I wish there was a stronger voice for consumers in the Commonwealth and ultimately was disappointed that we couldn't hold the line on the nominal protections we had,'' said Jay Fisette, an Arlington County Board member who championed the stricter regulations on towing.

The county passed its new rules late last year over the objections of the towing industry, and members of the business community. The Arlington Chamber of Commerce said the provision was a "burdensome regulation'' that would hurt business owners while doing nothing to solve the county's parking shortage.

Those opposed to the provision worked to push through legislation at the General Assembly earlier this year that, among other things, undid the county's second signature provision.

McAuliffe initially resisted the effort and tried unsuccessfully to gut the legislation with an amendment. Democratic Sen. Dave Marsden, who supported the bill, said McAuliffe was firmly opposed to legislation early on.

Marsden said the first time he talked with the governor he didn't get very far. "I hate towing,'' he said McAuliffe told him.

In early April, lawmakers rejected McAuliffe's proposed amendment, leaving him the option of vetoing the bill or signing it into law. McAuliffe took a meeting with Marsden, Sen. Barbara Favola of Arlington County, and business groups on April 24th to discuss the bill. McAuliffe said he was won over by arguments that the second signature provision was harmful to small business owners, who said the new rule was cumbersome and unworkable.

To bolster his cause, O'Neill hired three lobbyists. Two of them are longtime friends of the governor, David Jones and Chris Petersen, who had never lobbied in Virginia prior to McAuliffe taking office. Petersen, a law school friend of McAuliffe's, is also treasurer of the governor's political action committee.

McAuliffe said Jones and Petersen didn't speak to him directly and their lobbying had no impact on his decision.

"Never talked to them," McAuliffe said.

O'Neill declined to answer questions about why he hired Petersen and Jones as lobbyists, saying only that he had information he wanted to "make sure'' was passed on to the governor's office.

The extent of their lobbying efforts is unclear, as neither Petersen or Jones returned requests for comment. Petersen sent emails to some of McAuliffe's staff prior to the meeting, which contained the same talking points that the business community and towing companies had been making.

O'Neill also gave a $1,500 on April 13 to Favola, who had voted against the bill during session. McAuliffe said Favola later advocated for the bill.

"Barbara Favola and Dave Marsden were the leaders on it," McAuliffe said.

Favola disputes that characterization, saying she only provided the governor with "the pros and cons'' of the legislation at the April 24 meeting.

The $1,500 donation was only the significant donation Favola, who isn't up for re-election until 2019, received in April. Overall, O'Neill gave Favola a total of $3,000 in the first part of 2017, about 10 percent of all money she raised.

O'Neill said he's been a longtime contributor to Favola and his donations had nothing to do with the bill. Favola said O'Neill's donation did not influence her in any way. She also added that there was nothing unique in O'Neill's efforts to get McAuliffe to sign the bill.

"People who have interests in Richmond, they play the system,'' she said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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