An undercover sting by reporters at a regional daily has led to a council sacking a firm of bailiffs after its links to a cowboy car clamping company were exposed.
Jon Austin, the award-winning investigations reporter at Basildon-based daily The Echo, led a team which highlighted a string of connections between First Contact Enforcement UK Limited and LBS Enforcement Limited.
LBS is believed to owe thousands of pounds to wrongly-clamped drivers and has been criticised for its strong-arm tactics.
Southend Council has stopped using FCE as bailiffs as a result of the Echo’s investigation, which also involved senior reporter Stephen Hackwell and political reporter John Geoghegan, and exposed the links between the company and LBS.
The authority was assured last autumn that there were no connections between the two companies but the Echo found one of LBS’s two directors had been a director of a clamping subsidiary of FCE called First Contact Recovery at the time the council was making enquiries.
The newspaper also discovered the car clamping company’s other director was applying to be a bailiff for FCE and ex-LBS staff had senior positions in FCR.
FCE had collected unpaid parking fines on behalf of the council for a number of years but this stopped when the Echo handed its evidence over.
Andy Lewis of Southend Council said: “We made it clear we would not employ the services of First Contact if there were links.
“We were assured at the time there were no links between the companies and made our own checks with Companies House which appeared to confirm this.
“However, additional information has come to light indicating that a director of LBS was a director of a First Contact subsidiary at the time we posed these questions.”
As part of the Echo’s investigations, an undercover sting was carried out by Jon and Stephen, who posed as a landlord and tenant who wanted FCR to carry out clamping in a private residential car park.
They met up with and secretly filmed two ex-LBS clampers, who had lost their licences while at LBS, but were now drumming up work for FCR.
Jon said: “The council said it had carried out its own checks into links between the companies and found none, but anecdotal evidence we were getting from drivers suggested otherwise, and that they were sharing the same depot and FCR was taking over from LBS.
“Some thorough research at Companies House and in the county court established there were numerous connections and the icing on the cake was the undercover work. It was a great result for the paper.”