The towing company once accused of wrongfully removing cars from private property in Seaside Heights following Superstorm Sandy is seeking to win a license to tow for Toms River.
APK Towing and Auto Repair, based in Toms River, was accused of taking cars from private property in Seaside Heights and price gouging following the October 2012 storm. While not held at fault, a settlement reached in January with the state Division of Consumer affairs ordered those who had their vehicles towed by APK to be reimbursed.
In addition to APK, Accurate Towing, Priced-Rite Towing, Freedom Towing and Recovery, and Grone's Wrecker and Recovery Service have also applied for township tow licenses, according to Anthony Merlino, assistant township attorney in Toms River.
"Eligibility is conditioned on a number of criteria, many of which relate to equipment standards," Merlino said in an email to Patch. The township code for towing licenses, updated in September of 2012, "now provides that fraudulent or illegal activity of any kind is a ground for rejection. All of these factors were taken into account in the review of the five applications."
The attorney declined to indicate the status of the applications before they are put to a vote by the Township Council on Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 6 p.m. in town hall.
"However, I can state that APK's actions following Hurricane Sandy weighed heavily in the ultimate decision," Merlino said.
An attorney for APK said in a statement Friday afternoon that his clients have proven they are "qualified" for the job, having passed four separate inspections to obtain the bid since applying in February 2012.
"My clients are confident that if their experience, qualifications and proven willingness to meet the township’s standards are reviewed in a fair manner by the Township Council, they will obtain a township license for towing along with any and all other qualified companies that have submitted a bid," said Michael Botton, the attorney representing APK owners Matthew Zucaro and Jason McGee.
Botton has said that his clients did nothing wrong and were following instructions from a Seaside Heights official when Sandy hit.
"On the date of the hurricane, my clients were instructed, specifically by James Samarelli, Coordinator of the Office of Emergency Management, to remove every vehicle off of the island, no matter where it was, and to bill the owner for the service,"
In January, a settlement was reached between APK and the state Division of Consumer Affairs, under which the owners of the about 50 unclaimed vehicles and watercraft in APK's possession were given 21 days to claim their items before they are sold by the state for scrap. The proceeds from those sales will be used to reimburse the vehicle owners who had paid APK to retrieve their property prior a November 2012 agreement.
That initial agreement allowed for the return of more than 70 vehicles and watercraft to their registered owners at no charge. But some had already paid APK "significant sums" to reclaim their property before the agreement between APK and the state was reached, according to the Division of Consumer Affairs. The agency said that is likely the unclaimed items were left by owners because they were damaged beyond repair and were covered by the owners' insurance.
Also under the settlement, APK was assessed $15,669 for the state’s investigative costs, a fee that is suspended and will be vacated after one year, but will become payable if APK fails to comply with the settlement terms, officials have said.
According to Botton, Seaside Heights denied the emergency tow order was issued to his clients after residents began complaining of price gouging. Further, he said that all pricing was fair and conformed with the figures in the borough's tow ordinance.
Samarelli, who has since resigned his post for personal reasons, denied giving the order to tow cars from private property, according to an Asbury Park Press report.
APK has filed a $2.6 million Notice of Claim against Seaside Heights, which indicates that a lawsuit may be filed against the borough, but "no civil action of any kind has been filed at this time," Botton said. The company claims that, by releasing the vehicles it towed as part of the state settlement, Seaside Heights agreed to pay for the work but has not.
"My clients are hopeful to resolve the matter with the Borough of Seaside Heights in an effort to restore their long-standing, working relationship," Botton said.