PORTLAND, Ore. – You probably just assume the taxi you're taking to the airport is safe and street worthy, right? You might also take it for granted the driver who picks you up at your hotel isn't a violent felon with a history of dangerous car accidents.
But those assumptions might not be true.
A four-month investigation by KATU News reveals taxi, town car and limousine companies sometimes skirt permitting and inspection rules to make a quick buck.
The City of Portland requires all for-hire transportation vehicles to pass rigorous safety inspections. Drivers must pass criminal background checks and have safe driving records.
Companies also must demonstrate they obey fare regulations and operate throughout city limits. For instance, robbers, sex offenders and applicants convicted of eluding a police officer won't get a permit to drive taxi cabs.
The rules are designed to keep passengers safe. After all, we're incredibly vulnerable sitting in the back of a stranger's car.
But some companies and drivers ignore those rules, picking up passengers at the Portland International Airport or at downtown Portland hotels in vehicles that may be dangerously unsafe or lack even basic liability insurance.
"If you're using an unpermitted company, they may be operating on the margins. They may not have a lot of money to spend on vehicle maintenance," said Kathleen Butler, head of the city's Regulatory Division, which oversees the permitting rules.
KATU inspected hundreds of violation notices her office issued dating back to 2008.
"There might be significant problems with the vehicle. They may be using a driver who has violent criminal convictions; they might have a very poor driving record with a lot of accidents," Butler told KATU.
Girl falls from rented party bus
Just ask the family of 11-year-old Angie Hernandez why permits matter.
Angie died in September when she fell out of an emergency exit window on a private "party bus" in downtown Portland. After Angie's death, regulators discovered neither the bus nor the driver had city permits.
It was too late for Angie when city inspectors discovered dangerous problems on board the bus that should have kept it off the road in the first place. The Multnomah County District Attorney is considering bringing felony charges against the company, Five Star Limousine, and the driver, Martin Brauer.
Repeat violator still operating company
Most violators comply with city permitting rules after inspectors catch and fine them. But some drivers, like Brandon Sofge, just keep on operating anyway. Sofge owns a taxi and town car business called Around the Town Car Service. He has a track record of breaking rules in just about every jurisdiction in our area.
- The State of Washington ordered him to cease and desist in 2012.
- The Port of Portland Police cited him numerous times for operating a taxi at the airport without a valid permit and for failing to provide proof of insurance.
- The City of Vancouver revoked his business license.
- The City of Portland cited Sofge and his company so many times that inspectors consider him the single worst violator of the city's taxi safety rules.
Sofge was even banned from setting foot on airport property. That didn’t stop him from returning, however, and police arrested him in November for criminal trespass.
Even after all these violations, we discovered Brandon Sofge is still advertising his taxi service online. In the middle of January, Sofge offered to send a town car to pick up a KATU News reporter posing as a traveler at PDX. The town car he sent didn't have a valid permit from the city, which means it hadn't passed a safety inspection and may not have insurance.
KATU confronted Sofge three days later when he was in Superior Court of Clark County, Washington. Turns out he's also a felon convicted of writing bad checks.
Sofge ignored our questions and declined repeated requests for an interview.
The driver he sent to the airport, Vladimir, claimed to have a valid driver's permit. We checked and it is indeed legitimate; however, he was driving a town car without a vehicle permit.
That means the car hasn't been put through a detailed safety inspection approved by city mechanics to check for problems such as worn tires, faulty brakes or broken seat belts.
Regulators revoked Vladimir's driver's permit after our investigation revealed he was working for Brandon Sofge's company, which is banned in Portland.
Kathleen Buter of the Regulatory Division insists the city is trying to toughen its stance on illegal operators.
In November, the city council made the violations a criminal offense, significantly stricter than the civil offense they used to be.
If you're looking for a safe and reputable private transportation option, the City of Portland maintains a list of legal, permitted taxi, town car and limo companies on its website, which is updated every day.