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Cabs and Robbers

Local Photographer/Cab Driver Says His Consumer Activism May Have Cost Him His Cab Permit

Jefferson Jackson Steele
HEY, CABBIE! Ken Piaskowski had his permit sticker scraped off his Jeep.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 11/17/2004

Ken Piaskowski’s white and blue Jeep Grand Cherokee still has the glass barrier between the front and back seats. But he’s no longer a cab driver, and his Jeep is no longer a taxi, because in the dead of night someone scraped off the permit sticker and the numbers “679” that made him legal in the eyes of the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC). Piaskowski, who also takes striking photographs from his Jeep (“The Drive-By Shooter,” Sept. 1), filed a police report for “larceny from auto,” but he says he knows who took the permit.

“This is about harassment, basically,” Piaskowski says.

Fellow cab driver Nazam Singh says he owns permit 679, and had been leasing it to Piaskowski for more than year. In an Oct. 7 letter, Singh asked Piaskowski to give the permit back. “As you have properly [sic] heard the PSC in [sic] now requesting both vehicles and permits to be in the permit owner’s name,” Singh wrote. “This is why I’m requesting my permit be return [sic] to me within two weeks.”

Piaskowski, who paid $188 a month to lease the permit from the cab association, refused to return it, claiming he had established a “brand” within the cab association by using that number. On Nov. 10 Piaskowski complained to the Public Service Commission, claiming Singh demanded the permit back because Piaskowski has publicly advocated for honest cab fares.

Reached by cell phone, Singh says he took back permit 679 so that he can drive his own cab under it. Currently, he says, he rents a permit from the cab association. He says he doesn’t know who owns that permit, but that he owns number 679. He denies any motive relating to Piaskowski’s consumer activism.

Piaskowski says Singh demanded his permit after City Paper printed a single sentence in which Piaskowski recalled that a meter he had gotten from the cab association was “hot,” meaning that it ran at double the speed it was supposed to.

Piaskowski has printed and distributed bumper stickers warning cab patrons about hot meters that overcharge for rides. He says many drivers add surcharges to fares or charge illegal “flat rates.” He printed the Public Service Commission’s phone number on the stickers in a bid to generate more complaints. He wants the Public Service Commission to crack down on the ripoffs and allow him to drive under the permit he has leased.

The Public Service Commission “has been trying to encourage the practice of the permit owner and the owner of the vehicle to be one and the same,” says Chrissy Nizer, a Public Service Commission spokeswoman.

But the rules don’t require the permit holder to own the vehicle. And they don’t allow a permit to be transferred without a hearing, although several times a year the Public Service Commission hears cases in which permit owners scrape stickers off cars without the car owner’s consent. Other times the permit owner can’t locate the driver, who often is an immigrant working temporarily in the United States.

“The driver may not own the car,” says Katherine Holmes, the Public Service Commission’s taxicab hearing officer, at a hearing on Oct. 12. “He may be paying the permit owner, who is paying the association dues [for dispatch services]—it’s enough to make you crazy.”

That comment came, ironically enough, at the end of a hearing at which Singh failed to appear to face a citation for not getting one of his cabs inspected for safety. Holmes ruled that Singh should be notified again, since the citation (though not the envelope in which it was sent) did not include Singh’s apartment number.

“We could be denying this person their due-process rights,” Holmes said at that hearing, in which Singh faced a $150 fine. “What will happen, inevitably, is a civil penalty will go out and they’ll come knocking on your door and we’ll just have to redo it anyway.”

Piaskowski, meanwhile, has no right to similar due process before Holmes. The investigator who took his complaint told him he is not entitled to a hearing. He says he is planning to file a lawsuit against Singh, the cab association, and the Public Service Commission.

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