A local television news report alleging that District taxi drivers have paid bribes to have faulty cabs approved at D.C. inspection stations sparked a sharp exchange yesterday between Mayor Marion Barry and the reporter who did the broadcast, and drew attention from Capitol Hill that could lead to an investigation.
"Mr. Mayor, are you aware that D.C. cabbies are routinely paying bribes to get dangerous cabs okayed by city inspectors?" WDVM-TV (Channel 9) reporter Mark Feldstein asked Barry at his monthly press conference.
"Are you aware of it?" Barry fired back. "Why don't you report it to the police? I think you are committing a crime when you don't report things like this to the police. I don't think you ought to sensationalize this."
The report, broadcast Tuesday night, suggested that payoffs have resulted in dangerous cabs with severe mechanical faults operating in the city. Feldstein aired another report on the subject last night.
Tuesday's broadcast featured hidden-camera footage of a cab driver paying a man -- identified as the owner of an independent cab company -- a sum of money in return for having his cab approved at inspection, although the cab had failing brakes and a bald tire.
No inspector was depicted taking money, and the actual inspection of the cab was not shown. Tuesday's report and last night's both alleged that drivers give payoffs to "middlemen."
D.C. Department of Public Works spokeswoman Tara Hamilton declined to discuss the incidents depicted in the newscasts. She said that there has been an ongoing investigation by her agency and the District police department into reports of abuses in inspection procedures.
"We initiated an investigation about eight months ago. If Channel 9 has any other information we have urged them to give us anything that might help," Hamilton said.
Hamilton said at least three motor vehicle inspectors have been fired or resigned since 1981 after it was alleged that they accepted payoffs.
District police declined to comment on their investigation. A source in the U.S. attorney's office said the televised reports could "force the hand" of police to speed up their probe of the alleged abuses.
The reports also have drawn the attention of the House District Committee's subcommittee on governmental operations. Sandy Fiske, staff director of the subcommittee chaired by Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Md.), said the allegations "provided impetus for a close look" at District cab regulations, which are to be the subject of a hearing in January.
"We are going to look into the issue of inspection. We've been concerned about cabs in the District and we will be requesting copies of the transcripts of the show," Fiske said.
The approximately 10,000 cabs in the city must be inspected twice a year, according to city hack regulations. During the first nine months of this year at the West Virginia Avenue inspection station in Northeast, which officials said inspects the majority of the city's cabs, 6,974 cabs were approved and 5,155 rejected.