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Undercover investigator finds limos illegally acting like taxis

On a typical day, private investigator Mike Pfriender tails workers’ compensation claimants suspected of faking injuries, trying to catch them casting off the crutches they use in public to do somersaults in the backyard.

But in mid-August, he and several colleagues spent five nights as undercover tourists trying to get a ride on or near the Strip. The client: Six Las Vegas taxi companies. The mission: confirm intelligence that rogue limousine drivers were poaching visitors who, under Nevada law, should have gone by taxi.

Even though his engagement was short, Pfriender said he was approached numerous times about taking a limo for a flat price, or to a strip club, maybe for free.

“It appears that limos were providing cab service, rather than prearranged charter/limo services at several … locations,” Pfriender, a former cop from the New York City suburbs, concluded in his report. “Keeping in mind that we visited … eight locations over the course of five days, for short periods of time, and found this activity, (so) we can only wonder what occurs throughout the city on a daily basis.”

State law allows limos to carry passengers if the trips are pre-arranged or if the car and driver are under contract to a specific property. Offering to drive random passengers from, say, the Strip to Fremont Street for $30 infringes on the market legally reserved for taxis.

Tourist poaching is a common complaint in Las Vegas. When applying to the Nevada Taxi Cab Authority for new medallions last month, allowing them to put more cars on the streets, cab company owners contended that limos were siphoning off revenue during busy weekends.

“It has happened to me,” said Jason Awad, who owns cab and limo companies under the Lucky name. “We are worried about the gypsy drivers with their own cars and not the limo companies.”

But Marilyn Skibinski, deputy commissioner for the Nevada Transportation Authority, said she has not noticed an upswing citations issued to limos. The authority not only licenses limos, but puts enforcement people on the streets to ticket any violations.

She said the authority investigates complaints about rogue limo drivers, but that Pfriender’s report had not been forwarded to them.

At some of the places, such as Lawry’s The Prime Rib and Bellagio, there were no limousines, Pfriender and his crew found.

Pfriender, who has operated MP Investigations for 15 years after 17 years as a police officer, stopped several nights at the Wet Republic pool party at the MGM Grand, eventually figuring out that it was a daytime venue.

That turned out to be a backhanded stroke of luck, he admitted. At age 56, he’s about three decades older than the average We Republic patron, and would have blown his cover.

But at Treasure Island, one employee “who appeared to be a supervisor of some kind” offered him a choice of taxi or limo to go to a restaurant. Pfriender also saw the employee direct other people to limos, one time handing what appeared to be money to a doorman afterwards.

Hotel spokeswoman Michelle Knoll said that the resort pays to keep limos on hand for VIPs or parties larger than five, which are too big for a taxi. Otherwise, she said, Treasure Island “adamantly” enforces a prohibition on drivers coming within 50 feet of a doorman.

“We follow the rules the same way we have for 18 years,” she said.

On another occasion, a driver with a Cadillac Escalade identified only as “Mosses” took Pfriender and companion (a couple is less conspicuous than a single person, Pfriender believes) from a side door at Caesars Palace to a restaurant for $50. The report included a copy of Mosses’ business card and a hand-written receipt.

Mosses, contacted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, denied everything.

“I only charge $65 an hour,” he said. “I do not charge $50 for anything. That’s not me.”

Still, Pfriender concluded what he saw merited “additional investigation” by a government agency.

What agency that might be remains unknown. The six cab companies presented Pfriender and his report to the taxi authority as evidence of their need for more medallions. They won and did not mention plans to push the issue.

That means only one thing.

Case closed.

Contact reporter Tim O’Reiley at
toreiley@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290.

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