Following an inquiry prompted by a damning New York Times investigation, the city's sheriff office arrested a debt collector who allegedly preyed on cab drivers who had fallen victim to the taxi industry's financial bubble crisis, in which thousands of individuals borrowed heavily to buy medallions at inflated prices that many ultimately could not pay back.
Anthony Medina was arrested Tuesday outside his Staten Island home, according to a City Hall press release. He is accused of running a scam for at least three years and across four boroughs to seize taxi cabs and medallions from taxi owners facing debt payments. According to the city, Medina pretended to be a New York City marshal so as to intimidate and harass drivers into giving up their cabs and medallions. In some cases, he also allegedly shook them down for cash.
He was charged with four separate counts of criminal impersonation, a misdemeanor.
The arrest was but one sign of the city's effort to punish some of the bad actors and provide justice to those who got caught up in the medallion crash, which has produced heartbreaking accounts from cabbies struggling under the weight of backbreaking loans. Prior to the market's collapse in late 2014, the value of the city-auctioned permits had skyrocketed from $200,000 in 2002 to more than $1 million. On the heels of the Times exposé, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to eliminate $10 million in fees for medallion owners. Late last month, the City Council introduced a package of bills to strengthen protections for medallion owners.
Bhairavi Desai, the leader of the Taxi Workers Alliance, said that on hearing the news of the arrest she immediately called one of the taxi workers who had been one of Medina's alleged victims.
"It feels good," she told Gothamist. "We hope that it's an indicator that this city is taking this crisis seriously."
But she also argued that the administration needs to do more, by bailing out drivers and pressuring borrowers to forgive portions of their loans. She estimated the average outstanding loan of medallion owners to be $600,000. More than 950 cabbies have filed for bankruptcy, according to the Times story.
"At the end of the day, owner drivers are struggling to keep the roof over their head," she said, adding that the administration needs to address their financial situations.
"That's the real change we are looking for," she said.
Medina’s name first surfaced back in May in the Times report. According to the paper's investigation, Medina was hired by many lenders to work as a debt collector. He then allegedly led debtors to believe they had to return their medallions so as to give the lender “relief.” Tuesday's press release cited three incidents of Medina allegedly intimidating and threatening drivers into surrendering their taxis. In the most recent case, he allegedly broke into a taxi in Queens last May, removed the medallion, rate card and meter and left a note saying it had been seized. He later returned the medallion, rate card and meter when the loan was paid but pretending to be a marshal, he allegedly told the driver not to tell TLC what had transpired.
In an interview with the Times, the 50-year-old Medina dismissed the cabbie's complaints, saying, “I’m the scapegoat.”
Under the law, marshals are not allowed to repossess taxi medallions unless the contested value falls below $25,000.
“This arrest provides some long-awaited justice for medallion owners who were made victim of predatory practices for far too long," de Blasio said in a statement. “Hard-working taxi drivers represent the best of this city, and my Administration won’t stand by while innocent New Yorkers are exploited.”
The de Blasio administration credited Medina's arrest to its 45-day inquiry into the taxi medallion industry following the Times story. But as that investigation made clear, the responsibility for the financial bubble was shouldered by several actors in the industry, from lenders to government regulators to city officials, who at one point ran ads that promoted medallions as “better than the stock market.”
Although the problems arose during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations, de Blasio has been criticized for allowing the practices to continue in the early months of his tenure and for his defense of his policies on the Brian Lehrer Show, in which he described the crisis as a “private market reality."
Last month, the City Council held a public hearing, in which cabbies testified to the financial and emotional devastation they experienced after the medallion market crashed.
“The collapse of the medallion market, properly understood, should be remembered as one of the greatest government scandals in the history of New York City,” said Councilman Ritchie Torres of the Bronx during his opening statement.
The sheriff’s office is encouraging any taxi owner who has had their medallion repossessed by Medina to report it by calling (718) 707-2100.