TAMPA (FOX 13) - Uber and Lyft say the transportation playing field in Hillsborough County is not level, and now they appear to have proof.
They're crying foul over recently released emails showing cab and limo companies were actually invited to help the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission (PTC) in a series of stings on Uber and Lyft drivers.
Last spring, the PTC used fake customers to lure Uber or Lyft drivers to a certain location. When the unsuspecting drivers showed up, they were slapped with $700 tickets.
Emails obtained by FOX 13 show those fake customers were actually cab and limo company employees, recruited by the PTC to lure their competition into the trap.
In a May 2, 2016 email titled "Change Hillsborough Transportation Regulation," PTC Chief Inspector Brett Saunders asks Yellow Cab of Tampa owner Louie Minardi for "at least 3 volunteers" for an upcoming sting. A schedule for stings set to take place on May 7 and May 8 shows Minardi and Kings Executive Limo Service owner Dave Morris helped provide volunteers for stings.
The cab and limo volunteers, referred to as "shoppers" in the emails, ordered Uber and Lyft rides, only to turn the drivers over to law enforcement. The stings resulted in thousands of dollars in fines for Uber and Lyft.
"I think a lot of us have known for a long time that [the PTC] is basically a cabal run by the cab companies," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who says he's disappointed, but not at all surprised by the emails.
He says the emails show collusion between the PTC and some of the companies it regulates.
"It's unfortunate that the paid staff is actually in cahoots with the cab and limo companies to set up Uber drivers. I would hope that the state attorney would look at this. I think this is unconscionable," Mayor Buckhorn said.
Neither Saunders, nor PTC Executive Director Kyle Cockream, a recipient of many of the emails, would make themselves available for an interview Friday. In a statement, Cockream explained it as "common practice" to work with outside companies and citizens in stings.
"The PTC has traditionally used paid individuals as shoppers for stings. This was a one-time project involving volunteers, and in retrospect, it was not a good idea, in terms of how it could be perceived," Cockream said through a spokesperson.
Elected officials appointed to the PTC say they were blindsided by the revelations. According to board members, PTC staff is not required to inform them of how or when sting operations will be executed.
"I understand that, as the PTC we have rules to enforce, but send out the inspectors to do it. Use the inspectors: the people who are paid by the PTC to do these things," said PTC board member Guido Maniscalco. "It's totally unnecessary."
"To read these emails and to see the relationship the PTC staff has forged with the cab companies and the limousine companies, the companies we regulate, and how close it is…it's a scary thing," said PTC Chairman Victor Crist.
Though Crist says PTC staff may have developed inappropriate relationships with cab and limo companies, he says he does not believe the elected officials with voting power over PTC policy have crossed the line.
"I'm hoping board members can see beyond the influence and make the right decisions and level the playing field so that the doors can be opened and everyone can enjoy providing service in this market," said Crist, who plans to resign after regulations for ride sharing companies are voted upon next month.
Mayor Buckhorn, a long-time vocal opponent of the PTC, says the sting scandal highlights the flaws in the PTC.
"How are you going to have fair competition if the executive director is actually in bed with the cab companies trying to take out another competitor?" said Buckhorn. "I think this is reason number 50 why this is an archaic institution. Put the PTC out of its misery and let's get back to doing business in this community like we want to and being a beacon for technology and not an obstacle."
Cockream says the PTC will not conduct another sting "in this way" again, but says he has no intentions of waiving the fines issued to Uber and Lyft drivers during the setups.
Cockream also provided the following information:
The PTC conducted three sting operations in May with volunteers introduced to us by Yellow Cab and a local limo company.
There was no compensation offered or given in working with Yellow Cab and the limo company on the project.
We have not involved taxi or limo companies in any such operations since, and we realize that having cab and limo companies provide volunteer shoppers was not a good idea, in terms of how it could be perceived.