A decade of skirmishes between Los Angeles towing companies has given way to open warfare between two San Fernando Valley garages, which are waging a bitter court fight over the right to impound cars in West L.A.
The prize: an exclusive city contract worth up to $2 million a year.
In one corner is Mark Henninger, a 40ish, Harley-Davidson-riding multimillionaire who runs Keystone Towing in Van Nuys and who has an ownership interest in Rheuban Towing, the city towing contractor in West Los Angeles.
Opposing him is Tom John Sr., the 64-year-old owner of Tom John Towing in Sun Valley and a rival bidder for the Police Commission's West Los Angeles franchise. City officials say the pact might be awarded in the next month.
The sniping has brought into view the obscure, lucrative and often cutthroat world of city towing contracts, which for 50 years were held by a small group of families and companies, passing from father to son without facing competitive bidding.
Four years ago, a group of outsider companies, including John's, successfully sued the city, and a judge ordered the City Council and Police Commission to open the contracts to competitive bidding at the rate of four a year.
"It's always been emotional with these people trying to protect their dominions," said former Councilman Marvin Braude, who spearheaded the move to competition. "These are very valuable contracts."
John has sued Keystone, accusing Henninger's firm of unfair competition in the bidding process, alleging that it tried to influence LAPD detectives assigned to the Police Commission with gifts of vacation lodging, meals and services.
In addition, John alleged that Henninger and Keystone purchased a substantial interest in Rheuban towing without getting required city permission, and propped up Rheuban with Keystone resources, so it would look good on the application to keep the West Los Angeles official police garage.
In return, Keystone has raised questions in its court filings about whether Tom John overcharged the public in its handling of lien sales for impounded cars, a charge John denies.
"We had some minor infractions, but nothing intentional," John said, adding that the overcharges caused by accounting glitches amounted to less than $400 and have been refunded.
With the trial tentatively set to begin Tuesday in Santa Monica Superior Court, each side accuses the other of using the legal system to settle grudges.
Jane McClure, an attorney for Keystone, charged that Tom John brought suit "to gain tactical advantage in its bidding wars with defendants" and "cast aspersions on Rheuban and Keystone in the hopes of undermining Rheuban's otherwise superior bid."
Sherman Oaks attorney Neil Evans, who represents John, wrote that John is being "harassed" in court with demands for financial and towing records. He described Keystone as an archrival.
The Police Commission awards one official police garage contract for each of the 18 police divisions, giving the holder exclusive right to respond to police and Transportation Department calls for towing and impounding abandoned vehicles and cars involved in accidents and crimes.
"The stakes are very high," said Councilman Nate Holden, who added that he was not surprised by the level of vitriol.
"It's a tough business," Holden said. "It's very competitive. They have to race one another for the business, chasing accidents. If you can stomach that, you can stomach anything."
John said each contract can gross $1 million to $2 million annually, and the exclusivity is highly prized.
"There are people out there who will jump your calls," said John, a Sherman Oaks resident who began as a driver 29 years ago and now owns 25 trucks, with contracts to operate on freeways and in Beverly Hills.
The tight-knit group of contract holders calls itself the Official Police Garage Assn. and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past decade on lobbyists and campaign contributions to keep their franchises.
The amount of lobbying surprised and concerned Art Mattox, a former police commissioner and current member of the city Ethics Commission.
"That [lobbying] tells you that they want to protect their franchises and that the franchises are valuable," he said.
The outsider firms followed up their 1995 lawsuit to win competitive bidding with a lawsuit last year charging that the city has dragged its feet, only awarding one contract in three years.
John filed the third suit, against Keystone and Rheuban, saying he is up against an unfair system.
Henninger did not return calls for comment, but denied in a deposition that he attempted to influence LAPD officials.
The court fight has even gotten down to who picked up the bill at lunches between Henninger and police officials.
John contends that Henninger admitted to paying the tab on about half of the 24 lunches and breakfasts he had with LAPD Det. Dan Carson, who is assigned to the Police Commission Investigation Division as the police garage coordinator.