A taxi driver told State Police last fall that he had given cash bribes to Massport officials since 2007 so he could jump to the front of the line and dramatically increase his trips and fares, just as dozens of other cabdrivers working at Logan Airport routinely did, touching off an inquiry that led to the arrest of five ground transportation agents.
Those agents, also known as cab starters, were arraigned Wednesday in East Boston District Court and charged with accepting bribes. Each pleaded not guilty through their attorney, and they were released on personal recognizance pending a hearing on April 2.
“It’s not what it appears to be; it’s not a big corruption thing,” Michael Garvey, 51, of Melrose, one of the defendants, said as he left court.
The five men allegedly padded their $63,000 annual salaries by accepting bribes of $20 and $40 from cabbies known as jumpers. The driver who told authorities last September about the practice said cab starters could receive up to $800 a day in bribes, according to a State Police report. The starters are installed at Logan Airport to facilitate taxi service for customers and prevent cheating by the drivers.
The defendants were suspended without pay, according to Massport officials.
The investigation did not focus on the cab drivers, and it was unclear whether authorities plan to prosecute drivers.
“It’s not fair for the guys who play by the rules,” said Riad Soufan, who said he has worked as a taxi driver at the airport for 20 years. “They just go in and out while we wait, and we have to buy a ticket and wait in line for our turn to come.
“I’ve been waiting for an hour here now,” Soufan said, sitting in his cab at a taxi pool next to the Hyatt Harborside Hotel. When drivers enter, they pay $2.25 for a ticket with a number on it. When their number comes up, they are dispatched to pick up a fare.
“Those other guys that pay, they can do three or four jobs in that time,” he said of drivers who offer bribes. “I’ve never done it. I play by the rules. . . . I say to myself sooner or later they are going to get caught.”
The unidentified driver who approached authorities became a cooperating witness in exchange for being allowed to continue working as a cabdriver and wore a hidden device that recorded 30 bribery encounters he had with the five men, according to the report. It was unclear what prompted the driver to go to authorities.
One defendant — Kenneth Clement, 67, of Attleboro — was recorded 10 times, the latest on Jan. 23 at Terminal B, where he accepted $20 from the witness, prosecutors said. Vadim Mkrtychev, 37, of West Roxbury was allegedly recorded seven times, the latest on Jan. 12, when he accepted $40 from the witness, prosecutors said. Michael Garvey, 51, of Melrose was recorded five times, and James Mulrey, 45, of Stoughton and Donald Potts, 47, of Medford were recorded four times each, authorities said.
Instead of waiting in the taxi pool, as many as 40 drivers routinely drove straight to the terminals, where they would pay off the cab starters and illegally pick up fares. When they returned to the airport, the drivers would go directly to the terminals again. Some drivers made up to $600 a day this way, compared with about half that amount if they were operating legitimately, the cooperating witness told authorities.
Francisco Napolitano — an attorney representing Mulrey, who has worked for Massport for 14 years — said it is unlikely the defendants took bribes, considering their salary, pension, and other benefits.
“These gentlemen have a terrific amount to lose, and I’m not exactly sure that this nickel-and-dime stuff with cabbies really is something they would want to get involved in, given so much that they have at risk,” Napolitano said.
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