DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – The Dallas County Commissioners assigned a special prosecutor Tuesday to investigate whether a wrecking service illegally towed more than 5,000 vehicles based on racial profiling.
Over a three-year span, Dowdy Ferry Wrecker Service towed 5,200 vehicles under direct orders from former Dallas County Precinct 5 Constable Jaime Cortes.
Hispanic community leaders allege the towing was based on racial profiling targeting Mexican immigrants and poor people.
A special prosecutor has been assigned to investigate whether Cortes violated any laws. That investigation is ongoing but so far has not yielded any criminal charges.
Carlos Quintanilla, a community activist with Accion America, said the court action is a positive step.
“The order of the court will begin to answer those questions,” Quintanilla said. “And that’s what we’ve been asking for, transparency.”
Through the court order, former judge Bob McGrath and Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez were placed in charge of disposing of the vehicles fairly and with due process.
Four thousand of the vehicles have already been auctioned off. The remaining vehicles were scheduled to be auctioned off Wednesday, but McGrath put a stop to that, for now.
“Given the short period of time, there’s no way I can do what we’ve promised to do and that’s make sure proper notice was given,” McGrath said.
McGrath said Dowdy Ferry has been “incredibly cooperative” in the process.
The commissioners’ decision to assign the former judge and Sheriff Lupe Valdez to the matter isn’t sitting well with Constable Beth Villarreal. She inherited the towing scandal when she replaced Jaime Cortes in Precinct 5 in 2010.
Villarreal has spent the past nine months going through thousands of documents and investigating what happened to the vehicles. She said she feels blindsided by the commissioners court decision and said she should have remained on the case.
“I am saddened that I wasn’t allowed to complete the task I started in July,” Villarreal said from her office Tuesday. “I’m not going to fight the Commissioners on that. I just wish I had been consulted before they took this route.”
Meanwhile, community advocates say there are still too many unanswered questions: Did Jaime Cortes lawfully enter into a contract with Dowdy Ferry to tow vehicles? And was race a factor in selecting drivers and their vehicles?
The group said it is still exploring the possibility of filing a class action lawsuit to get answers to those questions.
“Four thousand people’s rights may have been violated,” Quintanilla said. “We’re expecting the district attorney to investigate and look into that and if not the D.A., we are expecting the Texas Rangers and the FBI.”
McGrath said a special phone number and e-mail will soon be set up for owners who believe their vehicles were illegally towed. The phone line will be bilingual.