The city put the brakes on a long-running scam by ice cream truck vendors Wednesday who allegedly used shady practices to avoid paying $4.5 million in numerous traffic violations.
The city confiscated 46 ice cream trucks in Long Island City and Astoria, which belonged to the New York Ice Cream company, as part of a decadelong investigation known as "Operation Meltdown." The truck owners allegedly racked up over 22,000 summonses between 2009 and 2017 for numerous violations, such as running red lights, parking near fire hydrants, and blocking pedestrian crosswalks, and avoided paying their fines by creating shell companies to throw off investigators, according to the city’s Department of Finance.
"For years, these owners have ignored public safety laws and have driven dangerously in one of the busiest areas of the city," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. "This seizure marks the end of the road for these scofflaw ice cream vendors."
Several people watched angrily as the brightly colored trucks were hauled away from several sites Wednesday morning. It’s unclear whether they were drivers, owners or employees of the companies. One man threatened a photographer at the scene, warning him not to take his photograph.
A legal complaint filed by New York City listed more than 80 defendants, including 76 John/Jane Does. Athanasios Fotinakopoulos, one of the defendants, declined to comment about the case when contacted by amNewYork. Attempts to contact some of the other defendants were not immediately successful.
The complaint said most of the violations issued to the companies took place in Midtown. Nearly 1,200 of the complaints dealt with parking near fire hydrants; 846 were for stopping, standing or parking in crosswalks; 93 were for ignoring red lights, and 63 were for blocking access to pedestrian ramps, according to the complaint.
The finance department provided some examples of these violations, such as a July 1, 2018, incident where a truck was illegally parked at the intersection of West 64th Street and Columbus Avenue.
The truck operators constantly re-registered their entities with the DMV under various shell company names and the city’s Department of Finance could not collect the fines through traditional means, according to the agency.
The violations totaled more than $4.5 million, and finance department investigators found that the debtors didn’t have bank accounts and all the information related to their companies was unavailable, according to the finance department.
"The city’s investigation has untangled this web of fraudulent transactions and the court has allowed us to take an initial step toward recovering the money owed to the city, with interest, and damages, and to permanently enjoin defendants from again putting profit over public safety,” New York City Corporation Counsel Zachary W. Carter said in a statement.
New York Ice Cream has been involved in controversy since it launched in 2014 under the name Master Softee by Dimitrios Tsirkos, a former franchise owner of several Mister Softee trucks. Mister Softee Inc. filed and won several lawsuits against Tsirkos for violating franchise agreements, and copyrighted aspects of their company, including their iconic jingle.
Jim Conway, the vice president of Mister Softee Inc., said his company and New York Ice Cream settled their last lawsuit out of court sometime last year. He said that no truck driver should get away with violating the traffic rules, and commended the city for taking action against New York Ice Cream.
“It’s guys like this that give our whole business a bad name,” Conway said.
(with Lisa Colangelo)