Prop. 1 ad on third of Austin cabbies gives only a fraction of story

The female voice on the Proposition 1 ad has alarming news for Austin.

“One-third,” the woman says on the Ridesharing Works for Austin ad that began running on Austin television stations a week ago. “One-third of fingerprinted Austin taxi and chauffeur drivers failed Uber’s tough background check process.”

Well, not quite.

The writing briefly on the screen says the one-third calculation was based not on all of the city’s 3,000-plus cab, shuttle, limo and other permitted chauffeurs, but rather on a small subset: 163 who had held Austin chauffeur’s permits between 2012 and 2015 and then applied to drive for Uber.

Of those 163, the ad says, 53 (roughly one-third) were rejected “due to failing Uber’s background process.” But the claim in the 30-second TV spot, repeated in mailers and a large ad that ran last week in the American-Statesman, fails to spell out an additional qualifier: 19 of those 53 had been convicted of “serious crimes.”

Asked for a breakdown, Uber officials said those 19 drivers all together had five driving-while-intoxicated offenses, five assaults, three drug-related offenses, two fraud and two major theft convictions, and seven other “driving-related” offenses. Some applicants had more than one offense, said Uber officials, who declined to release the drivers’ names or additional information, citing privacy concerns.

The other 34 were rejected by Uber for lesser transgressions such as having too many moving violations or a ticket for reckless driving, Uber said Monday. The company, which teamed up with Lyft to bankroll Ridesharing Works’ $8.1 million campaign for Proposition 1, declined to provide a breakdown of the minor violations.

The ad touches on a key issue in Proposition 1, the May 7 ballot measure that would allow Lyft and Uber to screen drivers with the name-based background checks they prefer instead of the fingerprint-based checks required under a new city ordinance.

Fingerprinting advocates have said that method is the best way to ensure the right driver’s record is being checked. The ride-hailing companies have countered that their name-based checks are as good as, if not better than, the fingerprint-based checks the city already requires of taxi drivers and others who have a chauffeur’s permit.

Uber and Lyft have touted the fact that their background checks look at public databases and court records across the country. Until a month ago, the fingerprint checks for Austin cabbies involved only criminal records in Texas, unless the driver had recently moved here from out of state. The City Council changed that with an April 7 vote that now subjects the applicants for Austin chauffeur’s permits to a national criminal background check by the FBI.

Even so, Proposition 1 critics note that Uber’s “audit” of some Austin drivers with chauffeur’s permits was done by the company itself and hasn’t been made available for independent scrutiny.

Company officials Monday declined to release the 2015 audit, and last year they rebuffed queries from Mayor Steve Adler’s office for details on the findings, spokesman Jason Stanford said Monday.

“It’s wildly misleading,” said former Austin City Council Member Laura Morrison, who has been active in the campaign to defeat Proposition 1.

Former Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who is being paid $50,000 by Ridesharing Works to speak in support of Proposition 1, was part of a 6-1 majority that passed the October 2014 ordinance that originally allowed the ride-hailing companies to use the name-based checks. Morrison voted against it.

“We can’t believe anything that Uber says about numbers without some kind of completely verifiable foundation,” Morrison said. “And there is none here. Certainly their own memo does not verify anything.”

Uber’s point, both when former Austin general manager Marco McCottry in October wrote a letter to Adler detailing the audit’s findings and in the campaign ads, is that fingerprint-based background checks can overlook potentially disqualifying crimes in an applicant’s past.

But aside from merely overlooking a crime through fingerprinting, as well as the earlier Texas-only checks, there are other ways some of those 53 rejected drivers might have had city-issued chauffeur’s permits.

Austin law permits issuing chauffeur’s permits at the discretion of the city licensing staff to those with criminal convictions, even for some serious offenses, if the potential drivers have served their sentences and demonstrated responsible behavior since getting out of jail or prison. Some of the Uber rejectees thus could have qualified for “re-entry” under city law and policy.

Others might have had a chauffeur’s permit in 2012 or 2013, then applied to Uber after having their chauffeur’s permit revoked (although city officials say this rarely occurs) or deciding not to reapply for the two-year permit after committing a crime.

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