Maverick cabbie busted again
ASPEN – Same story, different ride.
Rogue taxi driver Phil Sullivan has been fined, penalized and even jailed for accepting tips under the table for his ferrying services over the past five years – and he’ll be back in court again Friday following another covert sting by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.
Sullivan said Wednesday that he’ll “definitely” attend the show-cause hearing in Pitkin County District Court, where he’ll be asked to explain why he should not be held in contempt of court for allegedly violating an injunction slapped on him in February by Judge Gail Nichols. The injunction required that he cease operating his Kia mini-van cab operation.
The hearing comes after a criminal investigator from the PUC visited Aspen this past summer to see if Sullivan had stopped driving his cab. The investigator, according to an affidavit filed in district court, claims that he hitched a ride with Sullivan, whose van had “two illuminated taxi type signs on the roof,” on June 17. When the investigator, William Schlitter, was taken to his destination, he asked Sullivan how much the fare would be.
“Mr. Sullivan then stated the normal cab fare was $10 to $15,” Schlitter wrote in an affidavit attached to the PUC’s motion to find Sullivan in contempt of court. Schlitter gave Sullivan $20 for the ride, prompting the PUC to take action against Sullivan.
Since 2006, Sullivan, 75, of Woody Creek, has racked up more than $13,000 in fines by the PUC, which has tried in vain to get him off the road because he doesn’t have the proper authority to operate a taxi service. Sullivan hasn’t paid any money toward the fines, PUC spokesman Terry Bote said Tuesday.
Sullivan’s modus operandi is to haul late-night partiers and service workers to their next destination free of charge. He typically parks his Kia in front of the Wheeler Opera House, in direct competition with other cab drivers trying to pick up business.
Bote confirmed that a complaint from High Mountain Taxi, a cab service that operates out of Aspen and Vail, sparked the PUC’s June visit.
“We received a complaint from a competitor up there that Mr. Sullivan, once he got out of jail, was conducting business as usual, so we conducted an investigation in response to that,” Bote said.
Todd Gardner, owner of High Mountain Taxi, did not return a telephone message Wednesday.
In March, Nichols sentenced Sullivan to 15 days in the Pitkin County Jail for blowing off an injunction, issued Feb. 22 after a one-day trial, that prohibited him from collecting tips from passengers. He was released six days early for good behavior, and got back to work.
Sullivan continues to argue that he is doing nothing illegal; instead, he contends that he gives free lifts to those in needs of a ride. His work is a public service, not a crime, and if people want to compensate him for his deed, he’ll accept the gratuity.
“The PUC makes it sound like I’m not a good person and I’m out there soliciting money and asking for money,” Sullivan said. “And quite frankly, I’d say 90 percent of the people that I take are my friends, and they are people who work late at night – bartenders, waitresses, friends of bartenders and waitresses.”
The investigator in the June sting evidently wasn’t in that group. Even so, Sullivan said he occasionally provides rides to passengers he does not know.
“It’s ingrained in our society in Aspen to show appreciation in two phases: I help people, and they generally show some kind of appreciation,” he said.
In a Sept. 6 letter to Nichols, which is part of Sullivan’s case file, the driver said the injunction must be “reexamined, nullified and overturned.”
His letter notes a study showing that nearly 30 percent of Aspen’s work force accepts tips as its primary mode of income, which suggests he is being singled out because other locals provide services in exchange for gratuity.
“If ten people are caught smoking marijuana, the officer must arrest all ten, not just one,” Sullivan writes. “To arrest one is discrimination. How is the Sullivan case different? It is not fair for him to be prosecuted for accepting gratuity when no others who accept gratuity are. Sullivan must be allowed to defend himself against this discrimination.”
The PUC, for its part, requires Sullivan to play by the same rules other transportation companies follow. He needs to start by getting the proper license – a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity – from the PUC. In order to do that, Sullivan must first make good on the civil penalties and fines from the PUC. He has insisted he won’t do that.
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