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Updated: 11/24/2009 10:21 PM
Created: 11/24/2009 9:37 PM | Print |  Email
By: Mark Albert & Becky Nahm

INVESTIGATION: Who's At the Wheel of Metro Taxis?

A 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation found dozens of unlicensed, unchecked, and potentially unsafe drivers at the wheel of Twin Cities taxis.

Minneapolis police know there is a problem. They conduct undercover stings to weed out drivers without valid taxi licenses or unlicensed taxi cabs picking up fares where they are not licensed to do so.

But 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS dug deeper and found, so far this year, 110 taxi drivers or owners have been cited for license violations in Minneapolis.

Of that group, 82 percent have a court record.

For example, prosecutors charged Abdikadir Osman Mohamud with trying to run over a police officer with a car.

He pleaded guilty to assault in the second degree, but he's now on the run. There is a warrant for his arrest.

Bashir Sheikh Mohamed drove off with a passenger's 7-year-old daughter in his cab, according to a criminal complaint. He's also charged with drug possession.

Eleven of the drivers cited this year have a suspended, revoked, or canceled driver's license. One didn't even have a driver's license.

One man, Paul Osborne, has 31 driving violations and two arrest warrants. He was recently locked up in Anoka County.

Five cab drivers had arrest warrants at some point in the past two months, and two still do.

So how do these taxi drivers get hired in the first place? 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked the general manager of Blue and White Taxi, Waleed Sonbol.

We showed him video of two Blue and White cabs seized and towed during an undercover sting and the court records of the drivers, including that of Eslam Sallam, who has 22 driving violations, eight moving violations in three years.

Sonbol said, "They passed a criminal background check. They passed the geography test, the customer service test."

But when asked if he would let the drivers drive his family, he said no.

Mark Landis, the owner of Phoenix Taxi, said, "When people want a taxi, they step outside and they really don't care who picks them up. They just want a cab."

But after a reporter showed him the court record of one of his drivers, Brent Bartels, 44, who has prior charges for check forgery, drug possession, assault, driving after cancellation and financial card fraud, Landis said drivers do slide through the cracks.

Phoenix said it fired Bartels Tuesday.

Cab company owners said they often have little say on who is actually at the wheel because they do not own a majority of the cabs.

They lease them to either owner-operators or independent contractors, But as a result of our story, at least two companies are making changes.

For example, the owner of Blue and White told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS he will start asking the city every Monday if any of his drivers were caught picking up an illegal fare.

This year, the city has broken its own record with more unlicensed taxi drivers cited and cabs seized than ever before. It's issued more than $74,000 in taxi fines so far.

Taxi inspectors advise passengers in Minneapolis to let a cab pass by if it does not have a taxi license sticker in the bottom left corner of the back windshield.

AP Video