Frank's Towing and Recovery, as Arlington County motorists have come to know it, has come to the end of the road.
The death knell came yesterday in the form of nearly $16,000 in fines and court costs levied against the Arlington company after a judge found that it regularly overcharged customers. Company owner George King wrote a check for $13,636.32 and promised court officials to pay the remainder within 90 days.
Since 1992, King has owned and operated Frank's Towing, a business that has evoked ire from people who have had their vehicles towed. Over the years, dozens of motorists have filed complaints with county officials after the motorists said they were overcharged, sometimes by $100.
"I'm done," King said after the court hearing yesterday. "It's over now."
Actually, not quite, prosecutors said.
King, 45, of Woodbridge, has until March to pay the remaining $2,311.38 in fines and court costs, all of which stemmed from a plea agreement he made in 2001 to quit overcharging customers. He also has to pay restitution to 49 people or prove that he has already done so, said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Andrew Parker during a 90-minute Circuit Court hearing in which King agreed to the terms.
Most of the people to whom King owes money were charged $120 for tows that should have cost either $85 or $95, the highest amounts allowed by the state.
For the case to be truly over, King has to "obey the law and follow the orders of the court. . . . I want to see no more complaints," Parker said.
In a separate case, King, a former Arlington police officer, faces 20 counts of violating the state's tax code. He was charged last week with the misdemeanor violations, which include failing to register and report business income, failing to file required tax forms and failing to withhold and submit payroll taxes.
King is scheduled to appear in court next month on those charges.
The most recent complaint against Frank's Towing came Oct. 30, when a man was charged $120 after his vehicle was towed. King said that his company did not overcharge but rather that the total figure included a $25 storage fee.
Arlington officials have long complained that people are vulnerable to price gouging by tow-truck operators because a loophole in federal law prohibits local and state governments from exercising strong oversight. Efforts by U.S. legislators are underway to change the law.
From August 2004 through October, officials in the county attorney's office received 19 complaints against Frank's Towing, all regarding overcharging.
The state cap, either $85 or $95, depending on hour and day, is often violated, police said. King said yesterday that he didn't believe he was breaking the law by charging $120. County officials said towing companies are required to comply with the state cap.
Although other towing companies have been accused of charging more than the state cap, Arlington's chief prosecutor, Richard E. Trodden, has said there "seems to be a pattern with Frank's Towing."
With the various cases against King, and with Arlington officials "painting a really ugly picture" of him and his company, King said, it has been a long road. The state cap needs to be reviewed, he said, because it remains too far below fair market value.
He was only trying to make a living, he said, but the cost of doing business in the county was, in the end, too much.
Still, although Frank's Towing might be over and done with, King said he isn't going anywhere. He will continue to work in Arlington, from an office in the 1000 block of North Garfield Street, but now he plans to work as a "happy tower." He said he will also run an auto repair shop.
"I plan to tow upon request for the people who need it," he said. "I'm moving on."