Their new business venture? It's a company that boots illegally parked vehicles in Houston.
Joe Martin and Bruce LaPree were on the appointed parking commission last year when the booting ordinance was created, asking questions and applying their expertise to the proposed ordinance. Records show that even before the Houston City Council approved the panel's booting suggestions on Sept. 9, 2008, the two men had taken steps to create a company called Equipark, registering the company's Internet domain name, Equipark.net, on Sept. 4, 2008.
Equipark now calls itself "a parking lot enforcement and automation service provider," and it is one of the two companies that does booting for the city; the other is Premier Parking Enforcement. The boots immobilize vehicles, and drivers must pay fees to get the boots removed before they can drive away.
The key element to the change in the booting rules last year was dropping from $100 to $25 the fine for a booted vehicle for failure to properly display proof of payment. Also included was an ethics clause forbidding a parking lot owner from having an interest in a booting company or providing a kickback from a boot.
The new rules have been used as a blueprint for similar plans in several other cities statewide. The council is now considering a number of amendments to the ordinance and is slated to discuss the matter on Dec. 2.
LaPree, who is president of Commercial Asset Recapture Group, was introduced to the parking commission on July 16, 2008 as a "leader in the parking industry." At that meeting, he and the other panel members discussed the booting rules for the city.
He and Martin, former chairman of the Downtown Entertainment District Association, said in separate interviews with Texas Watchdog last week that they immediately advised the city of their new business once it was beginning to take shape, but that the city attorney's office simply advised that they get an attorney and present their case at a later date.
That was in September or October, LaPree said; according to Martin and LaPree, after numerous meetings with city officials and Houston's ethics committee, the two were asked to step down from the parking commission late last year.
Neither the mayor's office or the city's attorney's office responded to an e-mail and phone message Monday morning seeking comment. Texas Watchdog also sent a separate e-mail to City Attorney Arturo Michel, asking why the process for probing Martin and LaPree's potential conflict took several months. The message has not yielded a response as of early Monday afternoon.
LaPree and Martin, however, say they were open with city officials about their business launch.
"We were very transparent about this whole thing," LaPree said. "We had tried to get a hearing on it, and they decided first that maybe it was a conflict, maybe it wasn't. Finally, they told us it may not be a conflict but it looked like it. And we left."
Martin added: "We began the process of trying to get on opinion from the city early on. It goes all the way back to August of last year, when I sent an email to Liliana Rambo, the director of parking management, and told her that we were thinking of doing this. By that, time, (the ordinance) was out of our hands...we had already voted on it."
Rambo corroborated their stories and said as soon as she received Martin's email, she contacted the city's law department and ethics committee.
"We told them right away that they needed to resign from the parking commission," Rambo said. "Maybe there is nothing wrong, maybe there is, but it doesn't look good no matter what."
But, she said, they wanted to go through the process of ensuring that their venture was not an ethical violation. The ethics commission, Rambo, said, took between 30 and 45 days to even get Martin and LaPree on an agenda.
"But as soon as they told us they had this interest, I said, 'Do not come to the commission meetings,'" she said.
Neither Martin or LaPree is sure that their venture presented a conflict.
"It was only after (the new ordinance) was set up that it dawned on me to start a business," Martin said. "We were very overt that we considered doing this and didn't even start the company until after it was approved by the city council."
State records show LaPree and Martin registered Equitable Parking LLC with the Secretary of State's office on Oct. 10, 2008.
Texas Watchdog was made aware of the potential conflict regarding Martin and LaPree after a public records request uncovered an email from a concerned citizen to Mayor Bill White's office. The email was also copied to the city's legal department.
Both Martin and LaPree have phone extensions at Equipark, although LaPree said he has since left the business.
LaPree and Martin split earlier this year and Martin brought in local night club operator Gary T. Murphy as chief operating officer. On his Linked In page, Murphy says Equipark will be "expanding on a national basis."
LaPree has also served as a consultant to the Houston Astros and Minute Maid Park in the development of the downtown Houston parking plan for the opening of the ballpark. His firm, Commercial Asset Recapture Group, "specializes in many facets of the parking industry from ground floor planning though operations," according to a 2005 press release.
State records show Martin is a current director of the Downtown Entertainment District Association. In addition to Equipark, he continues to operate Joe Martin Productions, which has a stated purpose in business documents as a wired telecommunications carrier.
Photo of a booted car in San Francisco by Flickr user AgentAkit, used via the Creative Commons license.
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Monday, 11/23/2009 - 01:33PM
Simply great reporting Steve.This has to be one of your best pieces with the TX Watchdog to date. Keep up the outstanding work. We need more no-nonsense reporters like you and your colleagues.
Tuesday, 04/20/2010 - 12:31PM
Great job! please find more details about the bootMan. Many people, and I, who are not familiar with the city parking, have been their victim. They set up a trap (at least one) in a parking lot, called "Central parking(?)" near the Harris county clerk's office. I saw at least five people became victim. I hope some attorneys can provide help to fine $millions!!!
Saturday, 08/21/2010 - 12:41PM
Boot Man, Inc. (dba Premier Parking Enforcement) along w/ LAZ Parking got served up a LOSS in a recent lawsuit prosecuted in Harris County Civil Court at Law #3. http://www.cclerk.hctx.net/applications/websearch/Civil.aspx?DocketNo=953635
The plaintiff received a $1,000 fine, court costs, misc expenses and legal fees. Judge Linda Storey was very firm in her sentencing, telling the booters in no uncertain terms that they better not show up in her court again!
Tuesday, 12/20/2011 - 03:18PM
Bruce LaPree, Parking Matrix today booted my car at the Houston Saint Joseph's Medical Office Bldg during a cardiology appt. I had paid $3 for a 12-hour parking visit. I left for 30 minutes for lunch. When I returned, I walked past one of your female employees booting other cars. I specifically asked her if my car was parked ok. She said it was as long as the receipt was on the dash. It was. 30 minutes later, I found my car booted. After 1 hour waiting on dispatch to come back, they said there were no in/outs. They showed me where it was written on my receipt. Of course, I could not see the #4 font written on the receipt 3/4 way down the receipt. After extensive conversation with her and her subordinate, I was forced to pay the $113 to have the boot lifted.