Michael Cohen owed $22 million in loans against the taxi medallions he owned — and allegedly lied in order to try to clear the massive debt, according to court documents unsealed Tuesday.
The extent of the financial woes racked up by President Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer emerged in just-unsealed filings related to search warrants in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The documents show that federal prosecutors in Manhattan and the FBI were zeroing in on Cohen’s taxi businesses — including “misrepresentations” and omissions he made “in connection with a transaction intended to relieve Cohen” of the $22 million debt.
The investigation, which began in July 2017, found that Cohen lied about income from consulting work in 2017 in order to avoid paying back loans and failed to disclose “tens of thousands of dollars” he received in other monthly income.
“By making these misrepresentations and material omissions, Cohen avoided making monthly payments on his loans, and attempted to fraudulently induce the banks to relieve him of certain repayment obligations and personal guarantees that Cohen and his wife had signed,” the papers said.
It had been previously reported that Cohen was in the hole from borrowing cash from banks and credit unions against the medallions.
The once-rare taxi medallions — which at their peak were worth as much as $1.2 million apiece — tanked to just an average of $200,000 each after ride-share services like Uber and Lyft exploded in the city.
Cohen has pleaded guilty to tax fraud and campaign finance violations, as well as to lying to Congress.
He’ll begin serving a three-year sentence in May.
The Mounting Fallout from Uber and Lyft’s Disruption of the Taxi Industry
A number of high-profile abductions by rapists posing as Uber and Lyft drivers is once again highlighting the downside of the app-based disruption of the taxi industry — which goes far beyond all the congestion and rise in traffic fatalities.
As these companies grow, customers are experiencing exactly the kinds of problems that taxi regulations, at least theoretically, helped control. Here’s short list of problems plaguing the growing and still-largely-unregulated app-based taxi industry, and a bit about why we may be headed toward a more regulated taxi industry once again:
Sexual Assault, Abduction and Impersonation
The recent rapes, abductions, and even one murder, were committed by people posing as Uber and Lyft drivers. Not the companies’ drivers themselves.
But this kind of impersonation problem is worsened by some of Uber and Lyft’s policies. These companies, of course, rely on privately owned cars that are not very strongly distinguished from everyone else’s cars. Anyone who has a sticker can pose as an Uber driver pretty effectively, provided the rider isn’t paying attention to the license plate and model info the app provides, especially.
Of course, regular people can pose as taxi drivers and abduct women. But to masquerade as a professional city cabbie would at least require a greater level of sophistication, access to a carefully regulated marked vehicle and identifying license, or some kind of fake.
The problem may be much more widespread. According to a CNN investigation, 120 reported rapes have been allegedly committed by Uber and Lyft drivers in the last four years. Rape is a notoriously underreported crime, as well.
There’s also the issue of more mundane sexual harassment, highlighted in a recent viral thread, which is made harder to protect against because Uber and Lyft drivers are classified as independent contractors instead of employees.
Women especially, but also men and non-binary people as well, can be subject to sexual harassment everywhere, of course and often on public transit. But when their harasser is driving the car they are inside, and dropping them off at their house, it adds an extra element of power. In the case that went viral on Twitter this week, the driver making advances locked the woman in his car in front of her home and she eventually got out and fled. When she reported it to Lyft, the company reportedly offered her a $5 credit.
We asked both Uber and Lyft about how they handle complains about sexual harassment and assault. Both companies told us they operate a 24/7 call line where they handle these kinds of complaints. Uber lists the standards of behavior for both drivers and passengers on its website and app.
Uber investigates and responds to those complaints on a case by case basis, a spokesperson told Streetsblog. Unwanted touching or sexual advances, a spokesperson said, could lead to being banned from the app for either drivers or passengers. Uber would not disclose how many such complaints they receive annually or how many drivers or users were banned on those grounds.
That lack of data is troubling. In most cities, such attacks or allegations would be tracked. In New York City, for example, even if a complaint doesn’t mandate police involvement, it could still be forwarded to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which has the authority to revoke licenses and impose fines — which it does frequently. This agency receives about 21,000 complaints or all types, including sexual harassment, annually, according to WLNY.
Industry pressure reined in the agency from undertaking a wider crackdown on sexual harassment a few years ago. But drivers’ behavior is still highly regulated.
What female passengers experience may be overshadowed by what happens to female drivers, two of whom told Streetsblog that they dealt with things like suggestive questioning, unwanted touching and aggressive behavior, like punching their seat. Being a professional driver is a hard job regardless, but it has to be especially fraught when many of your passengers are drunk.
Uber told us that if a driver reports that a passenger was sexually harassing her, the company could ban the rider, though it is unclear how often this happens. And if the complaint is serious enough to rise to a criminal investigation, the company says it cooperates — just as any company would be forced to cooperate if a police department demanded information about a crime. Uber drivers, who are independent contractors, ultimately have to fight their own cases.
Uber and Lyft have been — rightly — blamed for increasing congestion in congested areas like Manhattan, central Seattle and San Francisco. According to the city of San Francisco, an astounding one in five miles driven within the city are Uber or Lyft.
Cities had a built-in way to address this problem by simply capping the number of taxi medallions or licenses they issued — until Uber and Lyft subverted those regulations. Now cities are generally resorting to fees to limit the number of Uber and Lyft vehicles. But it doesn’t seem like any city has yet imposed a fee large enough to have a serious impact. Boston is considering one of the steepest: a $5 surcharge for Uber and Lyft cars that pick up or drop off at the airport.
Hundreds more people would be alive today without the existence of Uber and Lyft, according to a recent study from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
Uber and Lyft say the increase is only due to the fact that their millions of drivers have increased the total number of miles driven by Americans — and more miles driven means more deaths. But some people say their policies are a problem. For example, they urge drivers to circle without passengers in order to keep wait times low.
We don’t have very good information right now about the safety record of Uber and Lyft drivers. Uber and Lyft probably have a lot of data about that, but have not been willing to share it. Anecdotally, however, there are many, many, many accounts of recklessness by Uber and Lyft drivers that has led to deaths — like the case of the Uber driver who plowed into an Atlanta crossing guard, killing her. He claims he fell asleep.
New York City allows taxi passengers to report dangerous driving to the Taxi and Limousine Commission using an app. According to StreetsblogNYC, 78 percent of those complaints were aimed at Uber, Lyft or Via drivers, who are also regulated under the commission, even though those drivers only account for about 71 percent of the city’s taxi fleet.
The Canadian Broadcasting Company investigated Uber’s safety policies in a 2018 report. The news organization reported that drivers are subject to a brief background check, but Uber and Lyft not provide any driver safety training.
Taxi cabs don’t do a great job serving passengers who use wheelchairs by any means. But they are required to offer accessible service.
Uber and Lyft have ignored ADA requirements until a rash of recent lawsuits forced them to evolve. As a result, they both started offering wheelchair accessible vehicles — but only in certain markets. Lyft on its website actually refers people who use wheelchairs to traditional cab companies in cities like Tucson and Phoenix using hyperlinks. Uber offers the service in just five cities, according to the Washington Post.
Now we’re starting to see them come under regulations more typical of traditional cabs. The California Public Utilities Commission has instituted a five-cent surcharge on every Uber and Lyft trip which is used to fund an accessible ride-hailing program.
Taxi drivers who are considered employees are subject to regular wage and employment laws, so they qualify for minimum wage and other mandated benefits. But Uber and Lyft have mostly escaped many of these worker protections by classifying workers as independent contractors.
Some Uber and Lyft drivers report making as little as $3 an hour.
New York City recently imposed a rule requiring Uber and Lyft to pay drivers a minimum hourly wage. But Lyft is suing to block the legislation, while Uber has complied. This really only scratches the surface of the way the estimated 2-3 million drivers are affected. But driving for Uber and Lyft is one of the fastest-growing low-paying jobs in America.
Uber, ahead of IPO, sees some time before self-driving cars dominate the road
Uber Technologies Inc expects it will be a long time before one of its biggest investments, self-driving cars, is ready for wide-scale deployment, a senior scientist said on Monday, as the ride-sharing firm gears up to go public.
Raquel Urtasun, who is chief scientist at Uber Advanced Technologies Group (ATG) and heads the group’s unit in Toronto, spoke about the challenges for self-driving development at a Reuters Newsmaker www.reuters.com/newsmakers event in New York.
“Self-driving cars are going to be in our lives. The question of when is not clear yet,” Urtasun said. “To have it at scale is going to take a long time.”
The more cautious tone marks a change from three years ago, when Uber embraced aggressive tactics to turbocharge its autonomous vehicle development in a bid to get more robot taxis on the street driving more miles. The company had been seen as an industry leader in the technology until one of its autonomous SUVs killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, in March last year.
Urtasun’s comments fall in line with the rest of the self-driving industry, which after much hype and bold promises has tempered expectations and pushed out timelines for deployment. The extreme technical challenges of building cars that can predict human behavior and respond appropriately proved greater than even some of the industry’s brightest minds had anticipated.
The progress of Uber’s self-driving car unit is in the spotlight as the company prepares to kick off its initial public offering this year. Uber, whose losses before taxes, depreciation and other expenses were $1.8 billion last year, has at times spent close to $200 million in a single quarter on its self-driving unit, sources told Reuters.
Uber, last valued at $76 billion in the private market, is seeking a valuation as high as $120 billion in its IPO and may kick off its investor roadshow before the end of April, Reuters has reported.
“It is true that when you go to an IPO, there is much more of a look into your finances,” said Urtasun. “That being said, again because Uber understands that self-driving cars at scale is not something that’s going to happen tomorrow, they understand the need for the science.”
Urtasun declined to offer any guidance on what mix of human-driven cars and autonomous cars Uber will have in the next 10 years, citing too many uncertainties in the industry.
“What is clear is that in a 10-year timeframe there will be a mix of both (self-driving and human-controlled cars),” she said.
UBER SEEKING PARTNERS
The business of building self-driving cars is extraordinarily expensive and the timeframe to payoff is increasingly uncertain. However, some consider Uber’s ability to successfully navigate the transition to autonomous vehicles as crucial to the company’s long-term financial prospects.
By removing drivers and adding automation, Uber will be able to pocket the full fare that passengers pay and create more efficient routes to move around people and packages.
Uber opened ATG in Toronto in 2017 and named Urtasun, who is also an associate professor at the University of Toronto, as head of the Toronto organization. Uber said last year it would invest more than $150 million in Toronto to grow its self-driving car operations, open an engineering hub and expand its work in artificial intelligence.
After the fatal Arizona crash, Uber removed its autonomous cars from the road, laid off hundreds of test drivers and shuttered operations in Arizona, its testing hub. Uber resumed very limited testing on public roads in Pittsburgh in December.
Uber has recently taken a more collaborative approach, inviting General Motor Co’s self-driving car unit Cruise and Alphabet Inc’s Waymo to put their cars on Uber’s ride-hailing network. Urtasun said on Monday that Uber encouraged every self-driving company to add their cars to the Uber network.
“We’ve been very, very open that we would like every other company to be in our (autonomous vehicle) network,” said Urtasun.
A group of investors led by SoftBank Group Corp and Toyota Motor Corp are in talks to invest $1 billion or more into Uber’s self-driving vehicle unit, Reuters reported last month.
Toyota previously invested $500 million to jointly develop self-driving cars with Uber.
The fight over exemptions will determine the fate of NYC’s congestion pricing
With the passage of the state budget and the long-awaited and hard-fought approval of congestion pricing for Manhattan, New Yorkers worn down by endless subway delays and clogged city streets may see some light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Congestion pricing, after all, has been promised as the silver bullet that will fix the subway and free Manhattan from the endless sea of cars that clog streets, crowding out pedestrians and polluting our air.
Advocates fighting for a traffic pricing plan have promised the world. A fee for cars entering Manhattan will clear the borough of crippling congestion while guaranteeing funding for Andy Byford’s comprehensive Fast Forward plan to fix New York City’s subways and buses. The dollars will unlock billions in capital spending, and limiting traffic will clear up the city’s air at a time when the catastrophic global impact of constant carbon emissions could not be more clear. (Or so the argument goes.)
But passing congestion pricing was just the first battle in a longer war, and for congestion pricing to be a success—for it to solve the problems it is supposed to solve—the next 21 months will be key as the MTA’s new Traffic Mobility Review Board develops the details of the plan, including any exemptions for those who drive into Manhattan but do not have to pay the fee. Congestion pricing will live or die by these carve-outs—and the board must ignore any political drum-beating related to them.
As I wrote in these pages last summer, congestion pricing is a progressive solution for New York City’s transit funding woes. Drivers in the city are wealthier than transit riders, and imposing a fee on them for access to limited road space to fund transit—whose benefits are enjoyed by millions in NYC—is the very definition of a progressive charging plan. But the benefits will take a few years to materialize. Fixing the subways—installing modern signal systems so that more trains can run through 100-year-old tunnels with fewer delays—is a multi-year (or multi-decade) fix, while congestion pricing will become a reality within the next two years. To successfully introduce congestion pricing, the MTA will roll out transit upgrades before the fee goes into effect, including more bus service and bus lanes, but in the near-term, drivers will face a new tax while high-capacity transit upgrades will be years away. And they won’t be happy.
As a rule, popularity for congestion pricing hits a valley in the period between approval and implementation as the narratives focus on fees rather than results. In recent polls, congestion pricing is already under water by 13 percentage points, and politicians may try to drive up approval numbers by kowtowing to groups seeking exemptions. But for New York City to experience the benefits of congestion pricing, politicians will have to provide cover for an initially unpopular plan.
Since the legislation authorizing congestion pricing punted on the details, special interests are going to push hard to shape the plan. To develop the details of a pricing scheme, the state mandated the MTA to charge for entry to Manhattan south of 60th Street beginning in 2021 and dictated how the pricing plan would be established. A six-panel Traffic Mobility Review Board with appointees from the city and the areas served by Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road will recommend tolling amounts with a variable pricing structure, including any carve-outs or exemptions, to generate enough revenue to fund $15 billion in MTA capital spending between 2020-2024.
Yet Albany imposed some legislative limitations from the outset. Cars that enter the congestion pricing zone via the West Side Highway or FDR Drive and never exit those roads onto local streets will not be charged. Additionally, emergency vehicles and those vehicles transporting people with disabilities are exempt from the fee, and Manhattan residents who live within the so-called Central Business District and who make less than $60,000 per year will be exempted from the fee. Plus, the fee will be levied only once per day, so cars that repeatedly enter and exit the congestion pricing zone will not be charged multiple times. The remainder of the exemptions will be in the hands of the review board, and that’s where the fight will be.
Already, this battle is playing out in predictable and noisy ways. Take, for instance, State Senator James Sanders, a Democrat who represents the 10th district, who wants to have his cake and eat it too. The Senator represents parts of South Ozone Park, Jamaica, and the Far Rockaways, and very few of his constituents drive into the Manhattan central business district on a daily basis. In fact, according to an analysis of Census data conducted by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Sanders’ constituents in Queens are overwhelmingly not driving into Manhattan. Only around 21 percent of workers in his district head into Manhattan every day, and of those commuters, a whopping 84 percent use the subways, the Long Island Rail Road, or buses. TSTC reports that just 3.1 percent of Sanders’ commuting constituents drive or take taxis into Manhattan south of 60th Street while nearly 50 percent are daily transit users.
Yet after voting for congestion pricing, Sanders is aiming to water down the plan. In a newsletter sent to constituents, Sanders stated that “more work needs to be done to lessen the impact on Queens’ motorists commuting into Manhattan, south of 60th Street.” Charitably, this could be read as a call to include more transit options for his constituents, but “lessen the impact” usually means create carve-outs so fewer people have to pay. This is, of course, self-defeating.
As congestion pricing guru Charles Komanoff detailed recently, even seemingly small carve-outs that exempt just 10 percent of all vehicles entering the pricing zone from the fee have a deep impact. Revenue declines by $100 million per year, and time savings from decreased congestion shrink by seven percent based off of his modeling for New York congestion pricing. Those benefits from the plan are precarious and can disappear in the amount of time it takes to exclude enough cars.
Queens isn’t the only source of lobbying for exemptions. The mayor has constantly pushed for what he calls “hardship exemptions” and has spent years creating the strawman argument out of New Yorkers who he thinks drive in great numbers to hospitals on Manhattan’s East Side. Without acknowledging the thousands of city residents who take subways and buses to their doctors each day, the mayor wants exemptions from medical-bound drivers. Meanwhile, commercial truckers who stand to benefit the most from increased productivity due to clearer streets want to avoid the fee, as do New Jersey politicians, tour bus operators, and motorcycle clubs. Who will pay if everyone gets an exemption?
The Traffic Mobility Review Board gives Albany an arms-length means of implementing pricing so long as the state legislature does not impose more carve-outs or revoke authorization. For the right amount of money to materialize, for traffic to decrease, and for congestion pricing to actually solve these problems, the plan must be thorough and robust. Just say no to exemptions.
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