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Chris O’Toole works for Pro Stage Inc., a D.C.-area set-designing business. It’s a small enterprise where everybody does everything, and a couple of months ago O’Toole was delivering some sets to a client. He parked in an apparently licit alley spot and went to get the owner of Image Television for help unloading the sets. He came back to find his car hitched to a D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) tow truck, no driver in sight.

He continued unloading—because he didn’t know what else to do—until the driver finally sauntered into the alley, eating a pickle.

“There was a discussion about whether we wanted the car back,” says O’Toole. “I told him that the alley was where we were supposed to unload and, clearly, we were unloading.” Unfazed, tow-truck pilot Michael McKnight allegedly countered, “You need to pay a $75 towing fee.” After another exchange of “I’m legally parked” and “you can have your car for $75,” O’Toole confessed he didn’t have $75.

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McKnight took the tête-á-tête to another level, asking, “How much do you have on you?” Deprived of a straight answer, he pressed on: “Do you have $50?” O’Toole said he could get $50, but that they’d have to walk to a cash machine on Connecticut Avenue from behind the building at 1705 DeSales St. NW. McKnight agreed, but dropped his guard long enough for O’Toole to whisper to his client about the shakedown in progress and ask him to call the cops during the cash run.

O’Toole returned with the ransom and saw no police, so he paid up. He was wondering what the hell had just happened when D.C.’s finest actually showed up. “Surprisingly, they took me very seriously,” O’Toole reports. The cops took the report, summoned a lieutenant to the scene, and led victim and client to the DPW Brentwood lot, where they identified McKnight, who was arrested on a felony bribery charge. Were there other charges? “No,” says O’Toole, “but there should be one for total stupidity. People already hate tow-truck drivers enough,” he notes.

The incident occured on Sept. 19. O’Toole and the client who witnessed the shakedown testified before a grand jury on Oct. 26, and McKnight was indicted on Nov. 8. He was expected to plead not guilty at a Nov. 22 arraignment.

O’Toole doesn’t expect to get his 50 bucks back. “I’d probably have to go to civil court, and I’d be suing a guy who just lost his job.” Don’t be so sure, Mr. O’Toole. As of Nov. 13, McKnight was still working—and driving tow trucks—for the city. DPW did initiate an “adverse action” against McKnight on Oct. 16, but he is allowed to keep working while the matter is under consideration. McKnight strongly recommended that direct inquiries to him cease immediately (click).

Bribery can land you in the can for up to 10 years and relieve you of not more than $25,000, or three times the monetary amount of the bribe, whichever is greater. The statute does not provide for harsher treatment for defendants with criminal records, which works in McKnight’s favor, inasmuch as he’s got a history of arrests for receiving stolen goods, cocaine possesion, and filing false reports to the police. Most of those charges, which date from 1989 to 1992, were dropped.

Since 1992, McKnight’s record has been clean, until the alleged shakedown. So maybe it was a slip-up driven by his perceived need to supplement a $12,000-per-year income from a job he’s held since 1982.

The question remains whether using a city tow truck to pad your pockets is a pattern, either with McKnight or other DPW drivers. “We have seen similar incidents, such as ticket-fixing or cases where guys kept the money from parking meters—and those were prosecuted—but I don’t recall anything specifically like this,” says officer Kenny Bryson of the police’s Public Information Office. It’s hard to believe that such ballsy behavior could happen repeatedly without creating a stir, but then again, this is D.C.