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    THOMAS FARRAGHER

    Taxi cab magnate may be out of luck

    Boston-10/23/12- Ed Tutunjian leaves Boston Superior Court. Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki(metro)
    John Tlumacki/globe staff/file 2012
    Boston Cab owner Edward J. Tutunjian pleaded guilty this week to federal charges.

    It looks like Boston’s taxi king, who pleaded guilty this week to federal tax and fraud offenses, may not be able to run the city’s largest cab business from his prison cell after all.

    Police Commissioner William Evans told me Friday that he is now reassessing the suitability of Edward J. Tutunjian’s family to operate the city’s biggest taxi fleet after Tutunjian’s admission on Wednesday that he dodged payroll taxes, employed undocumented immigrants, and failed to pay overtime wages.

    Tutunjian, 66, accepted a plea deal that orders him to pay more than $2 million in fines. Prosecutors want him to serve at least two years in prison.

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    “We’re going to reassess the suitability of the family,’’ Evans said. “We’ll look at the family’s involvement. Clearly, he’s not suitable.’’

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    Evans’s decision is a welcome about-face from the city’s now-jettisoned claim that its hands were tied when Tutunjian quietly transferred the ownership of 362 taxi medallions to his wife and kids in late July –—just four days before he was charged with federal crimes.

    That move essentially would have allowed Tutunjian — whose family runs the business with him — to control his empire from behind bars.

    That transfer was always a phony-baloney fig leaf — and a small and translucent one at that. And now Evans is calling it what it is.

    It seems impossible that the police commissioner will allow those medallions — city-issued taxi licenses — to stay in the family after Tutunjian stood before US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock this week and sang like a canary.

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    Yes, I was a tax cheat, he said. Yes, I was cooking the books. Yes, I violated federal housing laws. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.

    Under a 1930 state law, Evans’s power to regulate the taxicab industry is sweeping and absolute. He is authorized to bar “unsuitable” individuals and it seems almost certain that the Tutunjians will qualify for that dubious distinction.

    That would likely mean Evans will force the Tutunjians to sell those city-issued medallions to a third party deemed suitable.

    It would be quite a fire sale. Those tiny square pieces of tin — riveted into the trunks of city-licensed cabs — were selling for $625,000 three years ago. Today? They can be had for as little as $130,000, as ride-hailing companies like Uber have savaged the taxi industry’s economic model.

    Tutunjian’s giant taxi business made him a millionaire.

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    He bought vineyards in Chile and had vast real estate holdings. He made his money chiefly on the backs of a largely immigrant workforce whose members rented his cabs while, as the Globe Spotlight Team found three years ago, being extorted to pay petty bribes to get the keys to the cabs.

    “Until we got a conviction, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do,’’ Evans said of his decision to investigate whether to revoke the Tutunjian family medallions.

    The federal investigation into Boston Cab began just weeks after the Spotlight Team report when agents — with guns drawn — raided Tutunjian’s grimy garage on Kilmarnock Street, around the corner from Fenway Park.

    Evans told me the feds gave him no reason to object when Tutunjian sought permission to transfer his medallions to his family. Tutunjian’s daughter, Mary Tarpy, now runs the company.

    “We relied on them for advice and in January there was a joint decision to put a hold on the medallions,’’ Evans said. “We had figured they were looking into Mr. Tutunjian and we were seeking advice from them on what to do. We kept talking to them and we weren’t getting any information from them until June when they said, ‘Go forward and do what you’re going to do.’ That says to us basically nothing’s coming down criminally that’s going to prevent us from releasing them.’’

    In federal court this week, Judge Woodlock wondered whether the intra-family transfer of medallions was part of the plea deal.

    “There was no agreement because the decision [allowing the transfer] was made by the Police Department,’’ Assistant US Attorney Michael Tabak told the judge.

    “It was the government’s view that this was always a decision of the hackney bureau of the [Boston] Police Department,’’ Tabak said. “The government would have proceeded with this prosecution — by plea agreement or by indictment — regardless of what the hackney bureau decided to do.’’

    And now we know what that is.

    It hasn’t been pretty or surgically precise, but the city is now moving to strip taxi licenses from a family whose leader converted hundreds of brown-and-white cabs into a criminal enterprise.

    That enterprise issued a statement on Friday afternoon. It said: “The Boston Police Department has approved the suitability of Nancy Tutunjian to own and control the medallions and to continue to ensure that taxi service continues uninterrupted. Mrs. Tutunjian owns and controls the medallions and is perfectly fit to do so.’’

    Not for long.

    Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.