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Transcript shows how transit officials built case against Uber

Every month, the Nevada Transportation Authority reviews at its monthly meeting the citations and vehicle impoundments the agency’s regulatory enforcement officers generate while investigating illegal operations.

At Thursday’s meeting, there were 46 cases involving unlicensed tow truck operations, goods transporters and public transportation.

Because there are so many of them and because the final dispositions are rarely modified, the three-member board usually takes the list in one vote, holding out matters that may require a second look.

Thursday’s meeting was different from any other in the agency’s history because it was the first one that drivers contracted by Uber, the San Francisco-based company that holds itself out as a technology company that regulators view as a transportation provider.

Would Uber attend to defend its contracted driver? Would a philosophical debate ensue?

It turned out to be a routine, business-as-usual agenda item that took less than five minutes to wrap up, no different than the hundreds of other illegal transportation citations the agency handles every year.

Neither the driver nor Uber or its lawyers attended.

But a review of a 105-page transcript of the authority’s case against contracted Uber driver Anthony Morris gives a snapshot of how regulators are building its case against Uber and how some drivers went into their roles with little idea that they would be caught, compelled to appear before a hearings officer, fined and have their vehicles taken from them.

Morris attended an Uber drivers’ meeting on Oct. 15, nine days before he used the company app to begin transporting customers.

On his fourth ride of his first day, Morris, who wanted to earn some extra spending money for the holiday and had heard about Uber from friends in Los Angeles and Chicago, picked up Rachel Martinez, a Transportation Authority enforcement officer working undercover.

She requested a ride at Count’s Vamp’d bar and grill, seeking to go to the Red Rock Resort.

She was picked up on West Sahara Avenue, but less than a half-mile into the trip, a Transportation Authority patrol car pulled up behind Morris with lights and a siren and issued him a citation for illegally transporting a passenger without a certificate of convenience and public necessity.

In the Nov. 12 hearing, Morris appeared with his attorney, Peter Christiansen, before Commissioner Keith Sakelhide. The commissioner noted that Uber had not been notified of the hearing.

Morris was cited for failing to have an operating certificate and for advertising services requiring a certificate. He could have been fined $10,000.

At the end of the hearing, Sakelhide found him in violation of operating without a certificate, but not of the advertising regulation. He ordered a fine of $2,500 with $2,000 suspended for one year, provided there are no further violations and that the remaining $500 is paid in a timely manner.

Morris said in his testimony that he believed he was operating legally when he gave Martinez the ride.

“… At the time of the orientation, they (Uber) weren’t able to operate in Las Vegas,” he said. “And they said it would be soon that they would be able to operate. And so once they actually launched or had a launch date, it was my assumption that everything was ironed out at that point.”

Senior Deputy Attorney General David Newton, the Transportation Authority’s attorney, questioned Morris about his knowledge of Uber policies, getting details about how Uber conducted a background check on him, inspected his car and sought proof of insurance.

At one point, Newton asked Morris whether he felt he needed commercial insurance, a point of contention in Uber’s relationship with its contracted drivers.

“Are you aware that the Nevada insurance commissioner has stated that Uber drivers may need commercial insurance on their policies in order to not risk their policy being canceled or rendered ineffective during a passenger transportation for Uber?

“Were you aware that Uber had secondary insurance for the passenger in the vehicle?

“No one ever discussed that with you?”

Morris replied no to all three inquiries.

Morris also said he was convinced that Uber was a technology company not subject to state transportation rules.

“… My understanding is that they’re not a transportation company and that they’re a technology company that arranges for people to have transportation,” he said.

“And how, in your mind, are they not a transportation company?” Newton said.

“A transportation company, in my mind, would be like (Frias), that type of thing, that actually has cars and people that work (for them).”

Newton also established through Morris that Uber drivers, hypothetically, could long-haul customers for a higher fare because Uber fares are calculated by distance and time spent on the trip.

But Morris added that it wouldn’t help a driver much because it would delay him from getting the next ride. Deviating from the shortest route could also result in a poor rating of the driver from the customer, which could lead to Uber removing the driver from its rolls.

Contact reporter Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Find him on Twitter: @RickVelotta.

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