Dissed Truck Driver Wants to See Complaints

     ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – A tow truck operator who pulled vehicles from flooded streams last year after Hurricane Irene slammed New England wants to see the complaints that criticized his company’s actions during the cleanup.
     Dennis Hull dba Randy’s Repairs and Randy’s Transmissions sued the New York State Department of Financial Services in Albany County Supreme Court, under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
     Hull claims the complaints, which led to investigations into whether he charged inflated rates after the hurricane, “were false, malicious and defamatory, resulting in injury to petitioners’ good name and reputation.”
     Hull and his wife live in Prattsville, where they have operated the auto repair and towing business for more than 20 years. The rural community, about 60 miles southwest of Albany in Greene County, was nearly washed away in late August 2011 when Schoharie Creek inundated the town. The flood was fed by a foot of rain that Irene, then classified as a tropical storm, dumped in the surrounding Catskill Mountains.
     The Hulls, like others in the town, pitched in with the cleanup, donating food and clothing and volunteering time and labor, their Article 78 petition states.
     Dennis Hull says he “was called upon to use his equipment and skills to tow and recover vehicles that were obstructing the recovery efforts and/or represented a safety hazard to the community.”
     Hull claims he recovered more than 60 vehicles – some “in creek and river beds, some upside down, filled with silt, under debris; some located miles from their owners’ homes in fields, blocking roads, etc.”
     All were taken to a holding area outside of town where owners and insurance companies could inspect them.
     Hull says he devised “a flat billing system, based on industry standards” that charged $865 for his services, “regardless of the difficulty of recovery.”
     He says the fee was paid “without question or complaint” by all but one insurance company, and that that insurer agreed to the rate “after petitioners explained how it was calculated.”
     A month after the storm, Hull was contacted by the state Attorney General’s Office about allegations of “inflated towing rates” during the cleanup.
     Hull says he spent the next 30 days providing business records and billing documents to Assistant Attorney General Amy Schallop, who subsequently notified him that “the investigation was being discontinued.”
     But 6 months later, the allegations resurfaced in an April letter to state and town officials and local media, Hull says. It was discussed at a Town Board meeting, where members “advised the public of the allegations of wrongdoing and promised a public investigation into the matter,” the petition states.
     “Had the board members notified petitioners of the allegations before the town meeting and afforded them an opportunity to respond, they would have discovered that the same or similar allegations had previously been reviewed by the New York Attorney General’s Office and found to be without merit,” Hull says.
     Hull’s petition claims the letter came from a resident who had had a vehicle towed in the flood’s aftermath by another independent contractor, not by Hull.
     Hull says the Town Board asked the Greene County Sheriff’s Office to look into the allegations, in conjunction with the Department of Financial Services. The year-old state agency was formed when the former banking and insurance departments were combined.
     The investigation was completed in late June and “no prosecution was either pending or anticipated,” the petition states.
     “[T]he individuals, public officials and other entities providing the statements, correspondence and/or other written material to respondent during its investigation knew or should have known the allegations were false, malicious and defamatory, but chose to encourage, promote and disseminate the allegations, using the public investigation as a vehicle to injure petitioners’ good name and reputation and otherwise subject them to public contempt, embarrassment and ridicule,” Hull claims.
     He says he filed a Freedom of Information request with the Department of Financial Services in July, seeking copies of the letter that sparked the town-ordered investigation, “as well as all written statements, correspondence, emails, notes or other written memoranda provided by any other person(s), entity or governmental body alleging wrongdoing, illegal or improper conduct or business practices obtained during the investigation.”
     The agency denied the request in August, claiming the documents were exempt because they were compiled for law enforcement purposes, and disclosure could jeopardize an investigation.
     Hull appealed the denial and filed the Article 78 action.
     “Petitioners have a clear right under Article 6 of the Public Officers Law to the information concerning statements alleging they were involved in wrongdoing, improper or unethical conduct which was generated during a public investigation, especially now that the investigation is complete and they have been advised no prosecution is either pending or anticipated,” the petition states.
     Hull is represented by Jonathan Summers, of Albany.

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