PORTLAND, Maine — The city of Portland is seeking fines and a temporary suspension of a taxi driver who was accused of verbally abusing two women earlier this month.
The city has scheduled a hearing for 2 p.m. June 3 for Yellow Cab company owner and driver Abraham Lembarra, whose name is also spelled Abderrham in city documents.
Lembarra is accused of trying to coerce two women into getting into his taxi with three men they didn’t know, then launching into an obscenity-laden tirade against them when they refused.
A representative of the cab company argued that the accusations were false, and part of an effort by a rival taxi company to ruin Yellow Cab’s reputation.
If he’s ultimately found guilty of violating city codes regulating the conduct of taxi drivers in Portland, Lembarra could face up to a 14-day suspension and $125 fine, while his company could receive a larger fine and take a step closer to a full revocation of its license to do business.
The case attracted heavy interest among online readers last week when Bangor Daily News bloggers Alex Steed and Chris Shorr relayed the allegations of local woman Amber Dorcus, who first wrote about the incident on her personal blog.
Dorcus wrote that she and a friend were outside a Portland restaurant in the late afternoon on May 3, when a cab driven by a man later alleged to be Lembarra pulled up to the curb.
The taxi driver told the women he was looking for some “nice women” for one of his three passengers, who was celebrating a birthday, she wrote.
After the women refused to get in the vehicle, the driver called Dorcus a “miserable [expletive]” as part of a string of vulgarities that she said continued on after she later called the cab company’s phone number to file a complaint, then found herself talking to the same man.
Dorcus subsequently filed a formal complaint against the taxi driver with the city of Portland, which licenses cabs operating locally.
City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the city then launched an investigation into the incident.
“Anytime we hear of something like this, we take it very seriously. We don’t want this type of conduct on the streets of Portland,” Grondin told the Bangor Daily News.
A representative of Yellow Cab described the accusations as a hoax orchestrated on behalf of a rival taxi company seeking to damage Yellow Cab’s reputation.
“The story that was given by the lady, Amber, is not accurate. We are investigating this very, very thoroughly, and we’ll get to the bottom of this,” said a man who answered the phone number listed for Yellow Cab, who identified himself as a supervisor for the company named Sanon Portle.
“We’re not trying to sue anybody at this point, but we’re making sure that this is not going to ruin the company’s name,” he continued. “We’re a very respected company.”
Franklin Noiles, the city’s inspection officer, said he interviewed Lembarra, Dorcus and the other woman who was present during the incident.
“What I determined was that the driver was acting in an unprofessional, discourteous and harassing manner,” Noiles said Wednesday.
Noiles said Lembarra was found in violation of city code on March 25 as well for failing to relicense his cab, and although his first violation fine of $75 was waived at his hearing, the incident remains on his record.
As a result, if the hearing officer finds Lembarra guilty at the June 3 hearing, the officer could consider it his second violation this year and levy a 14-day suspension and $125 fine, Noiles said.
Yellow Cab is also scheduled to be the subject of another hearing before June 3 on an unrelated licensing complaint not specific to Lembarra’s conduct as a driver, Noiles said, so while Lembarra as an individual is facing his second potential code violation, the taxi company may be facing its third this year.
As a result, the city inspector said, the hearing officer could fine Yellow Cab $250 in addition to the $125 fine potentially given to Lembarra individually.
Noiles said it will be the June 3 hearing officer’s decision how much or whether to consider past violations by Lembarra and his company when ruling on Dorcus’ complaint. The inspector said the hearing officer will be one of a number of designated employees in the city’s licensing division.
Noiles said if Lembarra doesn’t agree with the hearing officer’s decision, he will be able to appeal it to another hearing before another city official without ties to the licensing division.
According to city code, the city can revoke a taxi company’s license to do business in Portland after four suspensions of any one of the company’s drivers or eight total suspensions among all of the company’s drivers.
Noiles said approximately 75 percent of the people who call his office to complain about taxi drivers don’t ultimately file a formal complaint.
Between formal complaints that are filed with the city and instances where Noiles finds licensing or bookkeeping violations during his random inspections of taxis, he said between 10-12 cab companies or drivers are brought before hearings each month.
“Most of the complaints that I get from the citizens are about being overcharged, a taxi refusing to take them somewhere or taking a longer route to get there,” Noiles said. “Once in a while I’ll get complaints about the condition of a taxi … but very rarely do I get a complaint about the conduct of a taxi driver.
“Most of the drivers out there toe the line on [conduct] because they know we’re not going to put up with it,” he continued. “Sometimes they’ll try smoking in the cab or they’ll try stretching out a fare because they may think people aren’t going to follow through with [a complaint]. But something like this, they know people are going to follow through on it if it’s made them mad enough to call.”