Judge finds renegade Aspen taxi driver in contempt
October 21, 2011
ASPEN – Nearly a dozen well-wishers in the back of the courtroom and a heavyweight New Orleans legal team weren’t enough to save rogue Aspen cab driver Phil Sullivan, who was found guilty of a contempt violation in Pitkin County District Court on Thursday.
Judge Gail Nichols ruled that Sullivan is guilty of accepting $20 cash from undercover investigator William Schlitter of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission for a short ride from downtown Aspen to the Inn at Aspen west of town on the evening of June 17. Sullivan does not hold a license from the commission to operate a taxi service, but has said he is attempting to apply for one.
Sentencing has been set for 2 p.m. Jan. 20, and Sullivan faces up to six months in jail. In March, he served a week in the county jail after being found guilty of the same violation. Both violations stem from the court’s order in June 2010 that Sullivan cannot accept money for rides. Court testimony revealed that the PUC investigation was sparked by a tip from High Mountain Taxi, a licensed cab service operating locally.
Sullivan’s attorney, Rob Couhig Jr., sought to have the case dismissed by questioning Schlitter’s credibility. Couhig’s line of questioning centered on alleged discrepancies between the investigator’s testimony and a sworn affidavit, in addition to whether Schlitter knew the state’s definition of “taxi.” He also noted that the state’s case relied on a single witness and a single incident.
But Nichols denied Couhig’s motion, saying she found the investigator to be “very credible,” and proceeded toward closing arguments.
Assistant Attorney General Emanuel Cocian, who tried the case on behalf of the PUC, pointed out that Sullivan “could have said no” when Schlitter approached him for a ride. At some point during the drive, Sullivan asked the investigator if he was a “state agent,” and Schlitter, posing as a musician, said he wasn’t, according to his earlier testimony.
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“Mr. Sullivan willfully failed and refused to obey the court’s order,” Cocian said. “He provided transportation to Mr. Schlitter and accepted $20 for that transportation.
“Mr. Sullivan previously was found in contempt of court on Feb. 22 of this year. At that time he was specifically warned that he is required to follow this court’s order. His actions clearly show that he has no regard for this court or this court’s order,” Cocian concluded.
Couhig sought to portray the incident as one that bordered on entrapment. He said it was unfair for the state, based on a single incident and witness, to attempt to put Sullivan back in jail.
“We’re going to try to get the court’s order amended, subsequently, but nothing changes the fact that the order was out there and was to be followed,” Couhig said. “But what is this tremendous evidence that we have in court today? A single incident by an investigator who didn’t understand the definition of a taxi, who comes upon Mr. Sullivan and makes decisions that this is a taxi service.”
Couhig took issue with Cocian’s comment that Sullivan could have gotten a PUC license to operate a taxi between the time of his jail term and the night of the sting operation.
“Nobody knows that,” he said. “The court’s probably aware of how hard it is to get [a license], particularly if one of the antagonists from whom you are getting the license is working constantly against you.”
Cocian then addressed Sullivan’s application for a license. “Partial compliance is not sufficient,” he said. “You must complete the task.”
In the end, Nichols sided with the state prosecutor, saying Sullivan clearly violated the order: “The conduct [of accepting money for rides] is prohibited until you have the license,” she said.
In the past, Sullivan has denied that he operates a regular cab service. His calling card says nothing about payment or gratuity, and that he merely seeks to gives friends a ride home.
Given the community’s status as an expensive resort town, he believes that he’s helping out others in the service industry who depend on their fellow local workers and receive some sort of compensation, whether in the form of money or a meal.
“When this all started, I was concerned about my civil rights. Now I want to protect everybody’s civil rights. This is a big issue for me and maybe for others,” he told The Aspen Times last month.
Couhig is well-known in New Orleans business and political circles. A Republican, he finished fourth in the city’s 2006 mayoral primary, a race ultimately won by Democratic incumbent Ray Nagin. In a controversial move, Couhig endorsed Nagin just prior to the runoff election after lambasting him on the primary campaign trail.
Couhig also ran fourth in the 2010 mayoral election, which Democrat Mitch Landrieu won. For a time in between mayoral races, Couhig co-hosted a talk radio show.
He is the former co-owner of the New Orleans Zephyrs, a minor league baseball team based in Jefferson Parish, outside New Orleans. At the time he and his partners bought the team, it was based in Denver.