Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Uber's legality will be up to the D.C. attorney general

January 13, 2012 - 05:15 PM
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(Photo: Ron Linton)

The head of the D.C. Taxicab Commission is, for some of our city's residents, a controversial figure. Why? Ron Linton attacked the beloved luxury car service Uber, which debuted in the District last month. Earlier today I wrote about the company's superfans, a mix of socialites and transportation fanatics. One even posted Linton's cell phone number, asking Uber fans to let the commissioner know how they felt about the $15 minimum car service.

How do we know it's his cell phone number? I called him.

"I just had my first call," Linton told me. The Uber fan apparently hadn't even had the courage to stay on the line with him. The person simply praised Uber, insulted Linton, and hung up. Much of the emotion and anger at him, Linton said, seems "based upon a lot of ignorance about what it's all about."

Ron Linton is not happy with the way things have been going and the response to it lately. He says it's not a question of the Taxicab Commission regulations, even — "I have to enforce these laws," he said this afternoon. The law concerning limousines prescribes against charging a mileage-based rate, according to Linton, and is the basis for Uber's legal issues. He publicly decried the company as "illegal" on Wednesday, today conducted a sting operation against one of the Uber drivers, and plans a bigger move next.

"We're turning the matter over to the attorney general," Linton told me.

The attorney general will help decide matters on the company itself, at least. The drivers' culpability depends on whether the hack inspectors catch them, the man said. What's most troubling about all of this is the fact that it's been two days of legal confusion, and the D.C. Taxicab Commission and Uber have failed to meet with one another or even talk on the phone. Uber says it wants to meet with Linton and is ready to discuss any legal issues. Rachel Holt, general manager of Uber's D.C. branch, told me as much on Wednesday in what has quickly become the company's statement on the matter.

"We have reached out to Ron Linton and the Commission, so that Uber can understand the concern that Linton voiced at the Taxi Commission hearings this morning," Holt told me earlier this week. "Uber is committed to remaining a useful transportation option for D.C. residents and look forward to hearing out and addressing any concerns from the Commissioner."

Oh? It's two days later now. Mid-afternoon on a Friday. Linton completely dismissed the idea that there's been any attempt at dialogue.

"They've never communicated with us," Linton told me this afternoon regarding Uber.

Nothing in the last couple days? I was shocked. Nope, he affirmed. The only record of Uber contacting the Taxicab Commission ever was one phone call with a clerk, he said, well in the past and in which nothing was decided or even really discussed. Yet Holt and I also talked this afternoon today, and she tells me that she has attempted to contact the Commission.

"I sent [Ron Linton] an e-mail the second I heard the illegal comment," Holt told me this afternoon, in which she said she had heard Uber came up in the day's meeting and that she'd love to sit down and talk.

But the e-mail she sent was to generic Taxicab Commission e-mail address. She received two dry bureaucratic e-mail responses about setting up appointments ... but nothing real and nothing that would connect her to Linton. I gave her Linton's office number and suggested giving him a call in the next week. She wrote down the number but also encouraged Linton to send an e-mail to Uber, especially before he goes to the attorney general. Holt seemed both confused and troubled that the Taxicab Commission would be targeting her company before much discussion or clarifying comments. Linton and Holt, it seems, are like two ships passing in the night. As the tension grows, the attention both from media and in political circles will likely increase, too.

"We ought to be more thoughtful about how this new service should be treated," D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, head of the transportation committee, said via e-mail this afternoon. "I will raise this as one of the questions in my hearing on January 30th on taxis."

Uber has remained active on its blog and in communicating with its fans. The @Uber_DC Twitter account is regularly engaging with anyone who writes about the company and the company just published a response to this morning's sting on the company blog:

We still haven’t heard anything from the Commissioner on what if anything we are doing wrong. We haven’t seen a single statute stipulating how limo companies charge for services and thus do not understand Linton’s press comments on the matter.

We are surprised that a public official is making statements about Uber violating the law without sending some kind of notice stating specifics. We are still are open to having dialogue, but he hasn’t responded to email. We’d like to let him know that we can be contacted at dc@uber.com.

We are still operating. We intend to continue operating, and we’re very confident that Uber continues to operate legally.

Bold response. "We are still operating. We intend to continue operating." Uber stands strong against any doubts regarding its legality. The big violation in question would be what the Post's Mike DeBonis called "improper charging" in this morning's account ... but like Uber, I've looked through the regulations and laws and haven't found the specific citation, at least yet.

Uber understandably points to the misfortune of the company's driver, who lost his vehicle to impound today in Linton's actions. "This is not fair to the driver, Ridha, who is now without his car throughout a busy three-day weekend," Uber writes. The company says it'll reimburse the tickets and donate money to him and his family. Linton told me that today's mission was to learn more about how Uber operated and not done in a "let's go get 'em" spirit.

In today's blog update, Uber insists it hasn't heard from the Linton and asks him to e-mail the company. Linton himself says he hasn't heard from Uber, despite his apparent availability. Holt would point to the bureaucratic nightmare of e-mails that went nowhere. What we have here is a classic impasse, one which requires, above all, open conversation.

"We're still totally open to dialogue," Holt said.

Linton would probably say the same. Let's hope the two come together soon.

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