There was a time in Vegas history when people had to buy a job as a lowly bellman. Some paid bell captains as much as $5,000 for a position in a Strip hotel. The reason? Because the job was so lucrative. Bellmen were known as being the link between hotel patrons and call girls. The kickbacks were legendary. Their activity had little or no effect on average Las Vegas citizens.
Now, a new job classification has emerged that has extraordinary profit potential. Who would believe that the humble cab driver would be next to reap a windfall? However, unlike what once quietly took place in the open at “Hooker’s nook” in the old Flamingo and other similar venues, this time profiteering has spilled over to adversely affect the residents of our town.
The current Taxi Tipping Guide, a service cab drivers find on VegasCabbie.com, gives the following information about "tips" a driver will receive for diverting customers to a business: Diamond Cabaret - $20/25; Hot Bodies Spa - $60; Massage Chinese - $10; Heaven Sent Agency - $100: The Playpen - $30; Pussycat's - $30; Indulge - $50; Oriental Massage - $10; Planet Uranis - $40, etc., etc.
In the meantime, local Las Vegas residents who need cab service wonder why it takes so long?
A revealing memo appears this week on the cabbie website. The writer, identified as "FN Cabbie" gives us this insight into what the cab driving profession has degraded into: "How many drivers actually drop off at Hot Bodies, knowing that it's a 'clip joint?' For those that don't know, the term clip joint stems from the fact that they basically take the customers money and 'toss' them out the back door. For instance, customer Bob goes into Hot Bodies. Bob wants to see a girl, so he pays about $140 to go into a room with a 'clothed' woman to do some 'exercises.' Mind you, it's a 'health' club. Now, Bob is enticed by the girl (Editor’s note: “hyenas” would be a more appropriate description of these females) to go 'further' in their work out session. She tells Bob its going to be X amount of dollars to go 'all the way' with her. Bob agrees, gives the girl his credit card. While Bob waits in his room, the girl swipes his card for the agreed price. She comes back to the room to get Bob to sign for it, just so they can make sure they get 'their' money. The girl then leaves and she says she's going to slip into something more comfortable. Shortly after the girl has left, 'Big Bouncer' enters Bob's room and tells him that his time is up. Bob is naturally upset because he paid for something he didn't get. Big Bouncer replies, 'Sir, don't you know prostitution is illegal in Clark County.' Then out the door Bob goes. What's Bob to do? Does he tell the Better Business Bureau? Does he call the cops? What can the cops do? Bob knows it's illegal to pay for sex in Clark County. If he tells the cop that he tried paying for sex and got swindled, the cop will just laugh in his face. How does Hot Bodies stay in business you might ask? Well, technically they aren't breaking the law. They aren't selling sex, and there is no way to prove that Bob didn't get exactly what he paid for, a nice weightlifting session with a woman fully clothed for, $800. She must be some trainer!"
Another cabbie writes, "We just offer them an entertainer to the room and get a $100 referral." Still another driver writes, "I dropped 3 guys there yesterday and thought I'd get $5 a head. When she handed me 45 bucks, I said Cool! Now I see why this can be lucrative."
But, the most insightful comment came from this driver, "Well here we go again... we're gonna get so greedy and cut our own heads off, to hell with the nose. Don't get me wrong, the money is nice, lord knows I'm a whore to it. But I don't want to see another lawsuit brought on because one topless club is trying to beat out another. Please don't divert if you hear another driver diverting or bragging about diverting SET HIM STRAIGHT!!! We can't afford to lose this opportunity, remember Christmas is around the corner."
"We've taken in excess of 50 rides, and one out of five rides that we take, we offered the opportunity for the driver, and they attempted or diverted us to a specific location." That was the statement of Nevada Taxi Authority (TA) Administrator John Plunkett when asked if taxi passenger diversion complaints had merit?
Plunkett went on to say that cab drivers told his investigators, who were posing as tourists, that certain topless clubs were closed; a rip off; dirty; or the girls were ugly, in order to persuade them to go to a club that paid drivers off. He made those statements in March 2002.
Then four months later, instead of trying to remedy the problem, the TA abolished the laws that were intended to prevent the practice in the first place!
It is well documented that locals and tourists often wait hours for a cab sometimes causing them to miss flights. This is because hundreds of cab drivers are spending their shifts driving only short distances so they can receive pay off’s from unscrupulous business owners. Why would a cabbie take a radio call to pick up a local when he can pick up fares at Strip hotels, drive two miles and be bribed $40 to $120 for ten minutes of his time?
Mr. Plunkett needs to be reminded that the "Need and Necessity" requirement of the TA's competition-limiting law says that the need and necessity of ALL citizens must be provided for, not just those who frequent bribe-paying businesses.
The first diversion study took place on January 14, and 15, 2000. It verified an average of seventy-three cabs per hour dropping off or picking up passengers from just one topless club, the Crazy Horse Too.
When did the problem surface? A summit conference of sorts took place in December 1998. Councilman Mike McDonald scheduled the get-together on behalf of his close friend Rick Rizzolo, owner of the Crazy Horse. In attendance were a number of owners and managers of adult businesses. The meeting was intended to address customers being diverted to clubs that were at the time paying off cabbies up to $20 per passenger. The participants at the meeting discussed standardizing the amount of money the clubs would pay each taxi driver per passenger. The group agreed on paying $5 per head. Several months later, without warning, the Crazy Horse broke rank and openly began bribing cabbies $10 a head. That's when the bidding war began. Councilman McDonald, a former policeman, took no action.
Within days, the Crazy Horse's front entrance was crowded with taxies. Investigative reporter Darcy Spears of KVBC TV News set up a sting and several drivers were taped diverting passengers to the club. After the newscast, the Nevada Taxi Authority did nothing.
The diversion problems worsened and local service became almost nonexistent.
On September 19, 2001, at a special TA hearing on poor service for locals, citizens from Green Valley and Summerlin complained to the politically appointed commissioners of waiting for over two hours for service while dozens of cabs were idling in front of local adult businesses. Their complaints fell on deaf ears and the "tipping," as the TA likes to call it, increased to astounding levels.
Crazy Horse Too, Club Paradise, Cheetah's and Olympic Gardens filed suit against their smaller, more generous competitors accusing them of conspiring with cab drivers to siphon off business. A District Court Judge granted a preliminary injunction preventing adult businesses from paying off cab drivers. In the face of protests, the TA continued calling it “tipping.”
Soon, instead of beefing up enforcement, the TA groveled. The pay off law was abandoned and the practice (unreported to the IRS) became officially mislabeled “tipping.” Now, it's the locals who are paying the bill while the greedy cabbies and sleaze businesses reap the rewards by ripping off tourists while the Convention Authority and hotels spend millions to bring them here. Who knows if they will come back after being robbed?
It’s a wonder the IRS hasn’t jumped on this cash cow that goes on and on with no records. In the meantime, the TA commissioners are hiding in the shadows while millions are exchanged unaccounted for - thousands each night - while local citizens and unsuspecting tourists pay for the TA’s malfeasance.
Because of their lack of effectiveness, it has been recommended that the TA be disbanded and cab fares lowered to make up for the savings of the agency's three million, two hundred thousand dollar operating budget (plus an undisclosed amount from cabbie fines for offenses other that diverting).
This counterproductive racket is costing a lot more than the Convention Authority and hotels are spending to entice tourism. With this “skimming” practice going on in the open, and friends like the TA commissioners, Las Vegans don’t need any enemies.
Steve Miller is a former Clark County Regional Transportation Commissioner.
Visit his website at: http://www.SteveMiller4LasVegas.com