The city of Warwick has been Ground Zero for the debate over how much Rhode Islanders are paying in annual car tax. This week our three-month investigation finds a city crossing guard allowing her son to use one of her license plates on his unregistered Jaguar - she uses the other on her Cadillac. That let him avoid the state sales tax and the city's car tax - for more than a year. Hear what the crossing guard, and the police, have to say after Jim Hummel questioned them about it last month.
Click here to watch the uncut interview with Gail Johnson.
Every school day just after 8 o'clock Gail Johnson leaves for her job as a crossing guard for the city of Warwick. She heads down Lake Shore Drive and north onto Warwick Avenue, arriving seven minutes later at her post a block from the John Brown Francis Elementary School.
Johnson drives a 2005 silver Cadillac with Rhode Island license plate XX-999.
Johnson's son, Joshua Brayman, is out the door most days well before his mom - driving to work in Providence. His vehicle? A 2005 silver Jaguar with Rhode Island license plate... XX-999.
A Hummel Report investigation found that Johnson and her son have used the same set of license plates for two cars for at least 14 months. One plate on the back of each car parked in the driveway of Johnson's house at 250 Cedar Swamp Road, which borders Green Airport and does not have any other houses nearby.
The Cadillac is registered, the Jaguar is not, even though Brayman bought it in in October of 2012. That means he's avoided the city's tax rolls, and the state did not collect sales tax because he never went to the Registry.
We asked Johnson about it one afternoon last month.
Hummel: ``Hey, we noticed that you are missing the front license plate on your car.''
Johnson: ``Yeah, I was in an accident.''
Hummel: ``Do you have any idea what happened to it?''
Johnson: ``It squished (hand motion).''
Hummel: ``Awhile ago?''
Johnson: ``Not too long ago. It squished. It can't be put on because of the things.''
Hummel: ``Well you know that Rhode Island law says you're supposed to have two on there.''
Johnson: ``Yeah, I know it. Yeah.''
Hummel: ``So are you in the process of getting another plate?.''
Johnson: ``Yup. I've got to get another one. Yup.''
Hummel: ``I'm wondering, we also found that that same plate XX-999 is on a Jaguar that's parked in your driveway.''
Johnson: ``Yeah, because his was stolen.''
Hummel: ``What do you mean?''
Johnson: ``The Jaguar. Yeah, what are you doing by my house to begin with?''
Hummel: ``Well, we got tip that you've been using the same plate, one registration on two cars.''
Johnson: ``The other one, that's because his got stolen. And we were told - my son - we were told to put it on because we did a report on it. You can check with the police department. There is a report on the missing plate.''
McCartney: ``That evidence is very compelling....''
We gave Warwick Police Chief Stephen McCartney a copy of our interview with Johnson and videotape of the two vehicles on the road simultaneously with XX-999.
McCartney: ``You know, you've got to question judgment. It's all about judgment here.''
The colonel says police records show Johnson's Cadillac was involved in a minor accident nearly three years ago, but there was no mention of a crushed license plate.
McCartney: ``And then she sort of started stammering, at least that was my impression of her and she was trying to come up with an excuse that is obviously not sustained by the facts.''
Johnson started as a part-time crossing guard in 1994 and became full-time in 2008, working 30 minutes each morning and afternoon. She makes $40 a day. Johnson is a civilian employee of the police department.
She is also the widow of veteran Warwick Police Officer Robert Johnson, who retired in 2008 and died in May of 2011. Mrs. Johnson receives a widow's pension that also includes free medical coverage from the city.
Her 2005 Cadillac in still registered in her husband's name three years after his death and she admitted to us she periodically driven her son's unregistered Jaguar. These pictures show the Jaguar last year at the crossing guard post and a nearby shopping center.
Hummel: ``Is that car registered?''
Johnson: ``I'm not sure, I don't think so. Because he's selling it.''
Hummel: ``So what happens if he gets in an accident?''
Johnson: ``I hope not. I hope not, it's just that he put it on because he needed to. It was stolen and everything.''
Hummel: ``We've gotten tips from people in this neighborhood who say those two cars, there was a Lincoln Navigator it was on....
(Johnson shakes head)
...Nope? Then the Jaguar?'
Johnson: ``Yep, but not the Lincoln.''
Hummel: ``And going back how many months? When was the accident?''
Johnson: ``I'd have to look and see. I've been in quite a few accidents.''
Hummel: ``You have?''
Hummel: ``But you know what it's like, you have both cars parked in the driveway with one registration, two plates.''
Johnson: ``Right, well we were told to do that by the police department.''
Hummel: ``Who told you in the police department?''
Johnson: ``I'm not sure of his name. It was a second shift cop.''
Hummel: ``But how long has that accident been since...?''
Johnson: ``I don't remember. I really don't.''
Hummel: ``But you don't see a problem with that driving around?''
Johnson: ``I have to stay...I gotta watch my crossing.''
Two days after our interview with Johnson - Warwick police also spoke with her.
McCartney: ``We told her we do not want to see you back at that crossing guard spot if you're operating the Cadillac unless there's two plates on it.''
So what about Johnson's claim to us that a police officer told her she could use both plates at the same time?
McCartney: ``In her interview with us she said I never said that, meaning I never told them about a Warwick Police Officer. Well obviously she was confronted ``Well apparently you told it to Mr. Hummel.''
Brayman, who works at this company on Allens Avenue in Providence, told police he bought the Jaguar in October of 2012. Col. McCartney says Brayman finally had it registered it last month - the day after our interview with his mother - and there it was in their driveway last weekend. Because the police didn't observe the unregistered car on the road as we did the chief said they could not cite him, despite our video evidence.
Hummel: ``You have a little vanity plate down there (camera pans to plate then back up to her).''
Hummel: ``And that kind of indicates that you're really not planning to put another plate on there.''
Johnson: ``I don't know. I got to stay at my crossing. I'm working right now. Okay?''
Hummel: `` You say the police told you to do that.''
Johnson: ``Police. I gotta go, I'm doing my thing right now. I don't bother you.''
As a result of our investigation the city now plans to send out a bill for back taxes on the Jaguar, although officials said they won't know the exact amount for another month - until the tax department gets paperwork and the car's VIN number from the registry.
A spokeswoman for the registry said state law prohibits her from commenting on a specific case, but she did add that a person who fails to register in 20 days would face interest and penalties.
And what about punishment from the city?
McCartney: ``It is certainly embarrassing to the city that you're a crossing guard and would certainly appeared that you came to work potentially with an unregistered vehicle, or a vehicle with one plate on it. Bcause of the personnel rules I have to take - it's going to be the personnel division that's going to take the action on it.''
Hummel: ``Are they going to get any input from you?''
McCartney: ``Well, they are. They're going to get out report.''
Last week the mayor's spokeswoman told us ``The employee was disciplined. Because it is a personnel issue, the City cannot comment on the specifics.''
But apparently it was not enough to cost Johnson her job. We saw the crossing guard back at her post on Monday...the second plate returned to the front of her Cadillac.
McCartney: ``Dumb with a Capital `D.' I mean I can't sum it up much different than that.''
In Warwick, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.