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Unlike New York City, where medallions are auctioned off for hundreds of thousands of dollars and can be sold from one person to another, in this city medallions are available to cabbies for a minimal processing fee and can't be resold.
Still, possessing a medallion does offer an obvious financial benefit: When a driver with a medallion isn't on the road, he or she can legally rent their cab and medallion to another cabbie, or to a taxi company, an arrangement that keeps cabs circulating 24/7, and typically puts an extra $1,800 to $2,000 per month in the pocket of the medallion holder.
Some medallion holders take this rental concept to the next level. Instead of being an actual operator and doing the required driving, they find jobs that are more lucrative than steering a Crown Vic through Bay Area traffic. Because they don't use the medallion during a shift, they can get more money in extra rental fees.
This practice of getting around the law drives Luxor Cab's Lazar crazy. "These medallion holders have found a way to go and make more money" by avoiding the regulations, he says, adding that medallion owners are regularly hitting him up for bigger rental fees. "Guys come up to me and say, 'I've got a broker to manage my medallion.'"
At the Commission, Machen reinforces the point by saying: "The public voted for Prop. K in 1978 because they believed that putting these medallions in the hands of working drivers was the way to go."
Nearly 30 years later, the law has deteriorated to the level of farce after spending hundreds of hours auditing the industry, Machen and her staff estimate that of the 920 medallion holders who should follow Proposition K (there are still more than 400 medallions floating around from the pre-Proposition K days), at least 150, and possibly as many as 500, are flouting the law.
To prove they've done their required driving, medallion holders submit stacks of handwritten road logs, called waybills, to the Taxi Commission. The waybills show when the medallion holder took the cab out, where they went, and when they drove it back to the garage. Or at least they're supposed to. When SF Weekly started examining them, we quickly discovered numerous waybills that raised questions for us.
Take the case of Adelheid "Heidi" Mueller, a prominent Realtor with Prudential California, who describes herself as a "real estate legend" on her Web site. According to the site, "Heidi Mueller and her team have sold more than $800 million in real estate." The San Francisco Chronicle describes her as an "elite" broker, and evidently the profession has been kind to her, providing Mueller with the income to personally purchase about $1 million worth of property in San Francisco and Oakland, according to property records.
In addition to her gig selling homes, Mueller has possessed taxi medallion No. 854 for more than a decade, and she claims to put in hundreds of hours of seat time in the cab each year. "I'm a Realtor and I have a medallion," Mueller says, adding that she does drive her taxi.
Her waybills from 2005, though, look dubious. SFO tracks every cab coming in and out of the facility using an electronic transponder system akin to FasTrak, and when we compared Mueller's waybills to the airport's data, we found inconsistencies.
According to the waybills, Mueller never treks out to SFO "I don't like going out there," she tells us but airport records show that somebody is taking her cab to the airport during her shifts. On at least three days it was at SFO according to the transponder logs, when Mueller indicated on her waybills that it wasn't. Either the airport's transponder system is bunk or Mueller's waybills are.
When we asked Mueller about this, she threatened to sue SF Weekly and hung up the phone.
SF Weekly obtained a pile of Chiu's waybills from 2005 and 2006 and began analyzing them. We came away believing the documents were probably created by two different people. Some of the waybills were remarkably messy, covered with sketchy, sloppy handwriting that tilted to the right side of the page, while others were filled out with very neat, feminine handwriting that slanted backward, toward the left side of the paper.
"It's all my handwriting," says Chiu when asked about the discrepancy. His waybills are also contradicted by the airport's transponder data.
Under the law, medallion holders are barred from creating "false or misleading" waybills.
Chiu, though, is truly a cabbie. Several hacks we interviewed say he's a veteran driver, and according to DeSoto General Manager Cindy Ward, Chiu has been on the driving roster there for eons "I know he's been driving for more than 25 years," she tells us.
Neither Chiu nor Mueller have been accused by the Taxi Commission of any wrongdoing.
Then there's Eugene Shu, an engineer with the city Water Department, who earns a $71,000 yearly salary and owns an $850,000 home and roughly $30,000 in securities, according to public records. Shu also claims to be a full-time cabbie.