The state charged 18 cab drivers on Friday with selling alcohol without a license. One of those drivers was a former Kusko Cab driver, Sejdula Ajeti. Kusko co-owner Naim Shabani says Ajeti had worked for the company part time for six months. In June 2016, Shabani says he fired the driver when a state investigator approached Shabani about Ajeti’s alleged activities. KYUK talked with Shabani on Friday after the state announced its charges.
KYUK: As a cab owner, are you surprised by what went down?
Shabani: Let me answer that in two parts. First of all, in regards to Kusko Cab, Kusko Cab has been in business in Bethel for 46 years. It’s a well known brand. The majority of our drivers are career cab drivers, if you will. We have drivers who currently work there that have been here since the late 1970s. So historically, in regards to Kusko Cab, I’m very surprised that we lacked the judgment to allow this individual to come into our company and somewhat impede our reputation that we’ve worked very hard to maintain over four decades.
The second part; in regards to the cab industry as a whole, I’m not too surprised. There were hints and details that if one looked close enough could have spotted and possibly could get the idea of what was going on.
At random, we had phone calls from what we thought were cab passengers who would ask if they could buy alcohol. When you answer the phone at a cab company, you’re expecting to hear an address, not a question like that. So in the later years, I’d say the last three or four years, this started becoming more and more frequent. So that’s really when we caught onto to this is what’s going on in the cab industry.
KYUK: And what did you tell your drivers to do, or how to respond when someone called Kusko and asked to buy alcohol?
Shabani: That’s really simple: we don’t do that. This is a cab company. If you need a ride somewhere, that’s what we do. It would be the same as if somebody called any other business and asked them that. What would the person answering the phone say? They would probably carry out their job duties.
KYUK: The rumors of bootlegging by cab drivers have been around Bethel a long time. Was there ever a time that Kusko got together with other cab companies and said, ‘This is an issue. How can we address this?'
Shabani: Kusko has had several meetings within our organization in regards to zero tolerance policy for our company. I’ve made it very clear that if I even get a hint of something like this that I will not risk this happening, but one bad apple ultimately did spoil it for the bunch in this case. But no, we did not as an industry get together and address this. It was pretty much every company handled it on their own.
KYUK: How long have you been a member of the City of Bethel Public Safety and Transportation Commission?
Shabani: For three years, since 2014.
KYUK: And during the course of any of that time, did the Commission take up this issue and say, 'We need to change something,' or enact any changes?
Shabani: No, not that I’m aware of. During our meetings I’ve tried to bring it up as an issue, but no official action was ever taken in regards to an investigation, or perhaps making the cabs rules more strict, or singling out drivers that have had more complaints. No action was taken.
KYUK: Are cab companies in Bethel run in such a way that if an employee were selling alcohol that the owner would know about it?
Shabani: No, not at all. And unfortunately, the way the cab industry works, and most people are unaware of this, cab companies don’t have employees. All the drivers are independent contractors. A cab company is merely a leasing company. The cab company owns the vehicle permits, and then they rent out the right to create a cab. A driver rents a cab permit and has their own vehicle. They’re basically independent. So it would be very difficult for management to know precisely what that driver was up to, unless enough complaints and attention is brought to that specific driver.
KYUK: You immediately terminated the one driver after the investigator approached you. Did you make any changes in your business after that termination?
Shabani: Once you terminate someone immediately upon finding out what they’ve done, I believe that’s the most extreme method of disciplinary action that I as a small business owner can make. I am not in law enforcement. I am not in any way able to enforce anything aside from not doing business with someone.
So, in a sense, that did set a good precedent that Kusko Cab does not tolerate this. It trickled down to everyone else. It confirmed our theory that we do not allow this for our company and this is not the image that we’ve set in the past, nor do we want to set in the future. So I did not make any changes. However, I did confirm our company value of not allowing that.
KYUK: Last June 2016 there was a raid that was not targeting Kusko Cab, but was targeting drivers with Quyana and Taxi/Alaska Cab. Did that raid change anything within the cab companies in Bethel?
Shabani: In regards to Kusko Cab, the reason we were not targeted was because there was one single part time, seasonal driver that was part of that target. Unfortunately for the other companies, there were multiple drivers. And they investigated us just like everyone else, but they just had the one guy. So not enough to go after the whole company, because there was nothing there.
As far as changing the industry as a whole, I mean, people aren’t calling and asking for liquor on the phone anymore like they were very heavily before the raids happened. So yeah, ultimately it did stop what was going on for the most part. I’m very happy to see this taken into effect.
KYUK: Thank you Naim.
Shabani: Thank you.