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Boston taxi regulator faces misconduct review

Mark Cohen has been suspended for alleged misconduct.

Mark Cohen has been suspended for alleged misconduct.

Boston’s chief taxi regulator, whose department is under fire for its haphazard oversight of the city’s $1 ­billion cab industry, has been suspended for alleged misconduct with a Boston Police Department employee.

Mark Cohen, who has been regulating city taxis since the 1980s, has been placed on paid leave from his $110,000-a-year position as the civilian director of licensing for the Police Department.

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Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said Friday that Cohen will not return until completion of an internal inquiry into a reported heated exchange between Cohen and an employee of the Hackney Carriage Unit, which Cohen ­directs.

In a related development, Davis said he has opened an investigation into the apparent mis­management of funds intended to aid the families of taxi drivers who die on duty, money that was collected by Cohen’s unit and that is now unaccounted for.

The missing bereavement fund money and a lopsided system of enforcement by Cohen’s department which regularly punishes drivers but abides egregious conduct by cab owners were among the central findings of a nine-month Globe Spotlight Team investigation.

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The Spotlight Team also found that drivers routinely feel compelled to pay petty bribes to get the keys to their cabs. Meanwhile, owners regularly violate Police Department regulations without fear of sanction.

“These allegations bring ­into question the overall management of the hackney unit,’’ Davis’s office said in a prepared statement.

Last week, the day after the Globe series began, Mayor Thomas M. Menino ordered a sweeping review of how ­Boston’s taxis are regulated and managed, an examination that could ultimately terminate the Police Department’s historic role as the enforcement agency over those who drive and those who own the 1,825 cabs rolling through city streets.

Cohen’s alleged misconduct with a subordinate and the ­increased and intense scrutiny of his hackney unit are not ­unrelated, said an official with direct knowledge of the incident.

“I think the stress is getting to him, and he had words with an employee,’’ said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not autho­rized to comment about internal personnel matters.

Cohen’s suspension became effective Thursday when he was formally placed on administrative leave. He declined to comment Friday.

Cohen, who has worked for the Boston police since 1985, is credited with remaking ­Boston’s taxi fleet, replacing a collection of battered clunkers with a gleaming modern fleet, many of them hybrid vehicles. A board member of an inter­national association of transportation regulators, Cohen successfully pushed for a require­ment that all cabs ­accept credit cards. And he intro­duced 100 wheelchair-
accessible taxis into the city’s fleet.

But he is also a lightning rod for drivers who say he and his unit have enabled the economic oppression visited upon a large number of them. Cohen has suggested that chronic complaints from drivers about being overcharged by owners from whom they rent their cabs are exaggerated. Many drivers consider him imperious and dismissive of their concerns.

When the Globe asked the Police Department two weeks ago about the whereabouts of the bereavement fund money collected by Cohen’s hackney unit, a department spokeswoman said the fund had been inactive for nearly a decade and there were no plans for an investigation “absent any evidence of wrongdoing.’’

But Davis said Friday that those comments applied only to a criminal probe and that he has begun asking questions about who collected the money, where it was deposited, who ­received disbursements, and where the money is now.

According to a winter 2005 edition of a taxi industry newsletter, Rear View Mirror, Cohen then was considering expanding rules for disbursements from the fund to those seriously hurt on the job, as well as to the families of drivers killed while at work.

“Cohen is also open to taking suggestions from (a) taxi committee on how to create addi­tional means of revenue to build on the account, such as an annual one-dollar fee collected from drivers’ renewing hackney licenses,’’ the publication stated.

Through a spokeswoman, Cohen said he did not recall that article.

Initially, Boston police said it did “not have any records’’ about the fund. But late last month, officials provided documents, some dated 1988, that detail its inception and organization.

The Boston Taxi Drivers’ ­Bereavement Fund was established with a $50 contribution for each taxi medallion, or ­license, held by its owner. At that rate, about $75,000 should have been set aside for the benefit of taxi drivers’ families. It is unclear whether there were additional contributions over the years to the fund.

It is also unclear where the money was deposited and how much of it was disbursed.

The brother of Joseph ­Celestin, a taxi driver who was murdered in Boston in 1992, said his family got support from the fund. Yvon Celestin said he believes the money paid for his brother’s funeral.

According to the records supplied by police, the chief uniformed officer of the depart­ment’s hackney unit was a member of the fund’s board of trustees. And the money for the fund was to be collected by police when license holders ­applied for their annual medallion renewals.

On Friday, Davis said he ­believes that it is “more than likely’’ that Cohen’s unit collected the money and administered the fund.

“I want to get [Cohen] to tell us exactly what his recollection is,’’ Davis said. “It’s really ­important.’’

The police commissioner said he hopes to have answers about what happened to the fund “within a week or so.’’ He said his department is now scouring records that date back a quarter century.

“This is something that is quite old, and there’s no indication that anything happened in this decade at all, no disbursements or collections,’’ Davis said.

Among the records supplied by police is a letter signed by Joseph N. Bethoney Jr., then president of the Cab Association of Boston.

“The money should be there somewhere,’’ Bethoney told the Globe earlier this year.

But reached this week, ­Bethoney, who said he left the Boston taxi business weeks ­after the fund was established, was less certain about the status or even the establishment of the bereavement fund.

Meantime, drivers are wondering what has become of the money.

“Every time we ask for an accounting, hackney won’t talk about it,’’ said Andrew Hebert, a longtime driver and a manager for USA Taxi fleet in Dorchester.

Jonathan Saltzman and ­Marcella Bombardieri of the Globe Spotlight Team contributed to this report.
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