Washington state drivers who don’t pay parking fines in the City of Seattle face hefty penalties, including the “boot” -- a tire clamp that immobilizes a car until the owner pays up.
But a KING 5 Investigation found that a select group of multi-billion-dollar companies has been permitted to avoid the penalties while piling up more unpaid parking tickets than anyone else.
By law, parking tickets must be paid by the vehicle’s registered owner, no matter who was driving at the time of the infraction. After lobbying in Olympia, however, rental car corporations succeeded in pushing through a law that establishes rental car companies in Washington as the only registered vehicle owners that do not have to pay their parking infractions directly.
KING 5 reviewed approximately 18 months of parking infraction data received from a public records request to the Seattle Municipal Court. These were tickets that were issued after the summer of 2011, when Seattle boosted its parking rates to among the highest in the nation.
These records show:
* EAN Holdings -- owner of Enterprise, Alamo and National –- had more delinquent tickets than any other entity, 778 unpaid tickets during the period reviewed.
* PV Holding Corp, which owns Avis and Budget, is second on the list with 458 unpaid tickets.
* Hertz Vehicles, LLC had 318 unpaid tickets.
* In all, rental car companies had 2,162 unpaid parking tickets in the months after Seattle’s street parking rate hikes went into effect -- amounting to an estimated $150,000 in fines and late fees owed to the City of Seattle.
Former state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) said rental car industry lobbyist Gordon Walgren approached her in 2004 and asked for a total exemption on parking ticket fines in Washington State.
Haugen didn’t support such a bold move, but she did help push for a different law also favorable to the industry. She asked state Sen. Ken Jacobsen (D-Seattle) to sponsor a bill that allowed rental car companies to avoid the fines if they forwarded to the authorities the information on the customer who had rented the vehicle at the time of the infraction.
That way, municipalities could work directly with the customer to collect fines. In 2005, state legislators passed the bill unanimously.
Both Haugen and Jacobsen said they didn’t foresee the problem that KING 5’s investigation uncovered -- a mountain of unpaid tickets and lost revenue to municipalities.
“I’m guessing what happens is people from other cities figure out, 'Well, if I’m from New York City and I get a ticket from Seattle I’m not worrying about it because there’s no way I’m getting caught,'” said Jacobsen, who retired from the Washington legislature in 2010.
One influential lawmaker who voted for the 2005 law now wants to lead the city that is losing the most revenue because of it. Ed Murray, the frontrunner in next week’s mayoral election in Seattle, was chair of the state House Transportation Committee in 2005 when the bill was passed.
“The cities didn’t testify against the bill. The City of Seattle didn’t testify against the bill,” said Murray of his support for the measure.
Elections records reviewed by the KING 5 investigators showed that the leaders of the legislature's two transportation committees -- Murray and Haugen -- received campaign cash from the rental car industry.
Records show the Car and Truck Renting and Leasing Association of Washington donated $675 to Murray’s campaign in 2004, the year it was lobbying in favor of the bill that eventually became law. Records show Enterprise Holdings, Inc. PAC of St. Louis donated at least $800 to Murray in 2010.
Both Murray and Haugen said the money did not influence their decisions to support the law.
“No, no.” Murray said in response to KING 5’s questions about the campaign donations. "I’m on record as having voted against folks who have given to my campaign numerous, numerous times,” said Murray.
Murray and Haugen said they were trying at that time to help the rental car industry, which was getting hit with big taxes in King County. They also thought it was fair that the driver pay the fine, although no other business in Washington gets that break.
“Having rental cars in your city is also a revenue source for the city,” said Murray.
Enterprise, the country's largest rental car company and the Seattle's lead parking ticket violator, declined to appear on camera for an interview. In response to questions from KING 5, the company sent a copy of its annual press release which says the company has systems in place to help municipalities “quickly identify individuals who owe fines.”
That way, cities can “work with them directly to collect payment.”
But the City of Seattle says in thousands of cases that simply has not happened.
The Seattle Municipal Court says rental car companies are in many cases failing to forward the information that allows them to pass responsibility for the fines to their customers.
Court spokesperson Gary Ireland said the more than 2,100 unpaid tickets on cars registered to rental car firms are those cases in which a company did not follow the provisions outlined in the law.
“We maintain that the agency did not provide the renter’s info and these are still due/payable to the court by the rental agency,” Ireland said in an email.
If the rental industry was struggling in 2005, it appears to have rebounded in the years since. Enterprise posted record profits in 2012 with revenues of more than $13 billion.
“Wow. Knowing that they’re a profitable company they’ve got no excuse not to be taking care of it,” said Colby Henderson as she parked her car in downtown Seattle recently. “I don’t really think it’s fair.”
Neither do the three legislators who helped enact the law in 2005. Former senators Haugen and Jacobsen and current state Sen. Murray all told KING 5 the law should be changed – again.
“The easiest thing may be to just make (rental car firms) responsible again,” said Murray.