Residents were outraged soon after to find that not only had cars been towed from private property, but they would have to pay the tow operator up to $2,500 in fees to retrieve just one vehicle. The sole company that had the borough’s contract said it was following orders issued by the town’s emergency management coordinator, James Samarelli.
Samarelli’s connection to the company could have posed a potential conflict of interest for the borough of Seaside Heights, where Samarelli was a paid employee, Mayor Bill Akers said.
Samarelli, 40, would not comment on the subject.
“I have no comment. You guys are beating a dead horse,” he said.
Samarelli resigned from the borough Jan. 11.
Affected borough residents complained APK was price-gouging, though a later investigation by authorities found no wrongdoing.
Now, nearly five months after the storm, APK is threatening to sue to recover lost revenue and its reputation. The company has filed a tort notice — a precursor to a lawsuit — against the borough seeking a six-figure bill for its towing work after Sandy and claiming millions in damages. In the last month, Toms River’s Township Council denied APK a towing license.
“All the controversy and all the questions have to do with the period of time there was towing and charging for those tows due to Hurricane Sandy. They’ve always been really good and real easy to work with,” Borough Administrator John Camera said. “The potential blame’s on everybody. By blame, if you mean having made bad decisions or bad calls or not done things as efficiently as possible, then yeah, everybody’s in that category.”
Despite APK’s contention that Samarelli issued the towing order, borough officials said they still are trying to piece together what happened and aren’t clear on who directed APK to tow cars from public and private property.
Once residents complained, Akers called APK to stop them from towing vehicles off private land, but he said he never knew why that started.
“Samarelli specifically directed them to take every single car off the island,” said Michael Botton, the towing company’s attorney.
Samarelli also instructed APK to bill the car owners, Botton said.
Akers, Police Chief Thomas Boyd and Public Works Superintendent Bill Rumbolo each denied ordering the towing company to move cars. The only other person Camera said had the authority to make that call at the time was Samarelli.
The tort notice claims that when questions rose about the work, Samarelli denied telling APK to remove every car. That fraud, as the tort notice calls it, made APK the target of investigations by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and state Division of Consumer Affairs, which hurt the company’s reputation.
APK prices its damages in the tort notice at about $2.8 million, which considers a 90 percent revenue loss after the storm and additional losses as a result of Toms River’s rejection, which officials said was because of the company’s post-Sandy issues.
“We got thrown under the bus,” said Matthew Zucaro, one of APK’s owners. “We’re pretty much devastated by what happened over there.”
Toms River resident Ray Sandquist had asked APK to tow his truck, but ran into issues and high costs when he went to retrieve it after Sandy. The former Seaside Heights resident said he wasn’t surprised with how the situation played out between the towing company and Seaside Heights, but thought APK should have made clear earlier what really happened.
“APK should have opened their mouth A.S.A.P.,” Sandquist said. “They shouldn’t have waited.”
Consumer Affairs reached a settlement with APK in which the towing company admitted no wrongdoing, but would return post-Sandy towed cars at no cost and provide restitution to anyone who already paid their bill, officials there said. The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office would not confirm or deny the status of its investigation.
Even if APK doesn’t file a lawsuit, Seaside Heights could be left holding a $344,820 bill for the vehicles towed after Sandy. Camera said APK removed roughly 300 cars from Seaside Heights and residents who went to retrieve their vehicles got bills ranging from $800 to $2,500 for towing and storage.
Camera said he needs to ensure a borough official gave the order to tow and thoroughly review the towing work done before the borough pays that bill.
“When you’re in an emergency and things are being done with verbal contracts, which are never allowed in government, we’ve got to do our best to confirm that,” he said. “And quite frankly, even if I thought it was a really bad call to order any particular thing, my feeling is if it’s confirmed that it was ordered and the pricing is correct and we got the services or goods, then we’ve got to pay for them.”
Samarelli was Seaside Heights’ emergency management coordinator for eight years until he resigned, Camera said.
He also took a leave of absence from the Seaside Heights Volunteer Fire Department, where APK owners Zucaro and McGee are members. Samarelli served the department for more than two decades, including seven years as chief, according to Rumbolo, the borough’s current fire chief.
In his Jan. 11 resignation letter, Samarelli explained after the storm, he needs to focus his time finding a new place to live and fixing his old one.
“This will require the majority of my time and not leave me the time required to properly serve as the emergency management coordinator,” he stated in the letter.
Samarelli was paid a $10,000 annual stipend for the job, which was a volunteer position for most of his employment, Camera said. The post doesn’t have set hours, he added.
Samarelli never has worked for APK, but the company sought him out when it needed more drivers with commercial driver’s licenses to apply for a towing license with Toms River Township, said Botton. If hired, the company would retain Samarelli and other drivers it listed, he said.
But in February, Toms River rejected APK’s bid, despite an endorsement from Seaside Heights that Akers wrote before Sandy. Akers said recently if it proved true that Samarelli worked both for APK and Seaside, that “might have raised flags.”
Toms River Council President George Wittmann said the police department reviewed each company and in the case of APK and one other company, there were violations that precluded them from getting a license.
APK intends to appeal the council’s decision, but won’t be using Samarelli as a driver, Botton said.
“Based on the events that happened at Seaside Heights and Mr. Samarelli’s actions and behavior, we’re not hiring him,” he said.