A state agency recently criticized for weak investigations and soft penalties has quietly slashed by 75 percent its fine against a limousine company whose car burned on the San Mateo Bridge last year, killing five women on their way to a wedding party.

That company, Limo Stop, will only pay $5,000 of the $20,000 fine originally imposed by the California Public Utilities Commission, newly released documents reveal.

"It was absolutely too light to start with," said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, a PUC critic. "Those fines should have been much higher. There is a culture of complacency at the PUC. It's just too cozy with business."

First, the PUC agreed to cut the fine in half if Limo Stop didn't violate safety regulations for three years. When the company continued to appeal, the PUC agreed to lower the fine again as part of a settlement reached in April.

A state audit released last month of the PUC's Transportation Enforcement Branch sharply criticized it for failing to issue tough fines.

"When (passenger) carriers face limited consequences for operating outside of the law, such as receiving small fines, they have little incentive to cease illegal operations," the audit stated. "This increases the likelihood that they will employ drivers without drug testing, operate without liability insurance, and ignore vehicle safety inspections, leaving their passengers and the public at greater risk."


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"That's exactly the same problem here," Hill said. "They don't penalize people and they don't enforce the law."

The PUC found that the Limo Stop's converted Lincoln Town car was carrying nine passengers on May -- two above its legal limit. Five died when the vehicle burned after a what the Highway Patrol called "catastrophic failure" of the limo's suspension system ignited carpeting in the passenger compartment.

Four women escaped, crawling thorough a small hole in a partition to the driver's compartment. The dead were found crowded around that passage, overcome by smoke before they could get through.

Lives might "have been saved if the vehicle had carried only (seven people) by making exit from the vehicle easier," PUC staff wrote.

Investigators also found that Limo Stop had hired three drivers without having them undergo mandatory drug and alcohol testing and also did not maintain proper paperwork about its trips. The five violations were lumped into one citation, which had a maximum fine of $20,000.

But even when half that amount was administratively set aside, Limo Stop appealed ,claiming PUC investigators had reached improper conclusions and offered no evidence that carrying two extra passengers contributed in any way to the cause of the fire. That overcrowding contributed to the deaths "is nothing more than conjecture," Limo Stop's lawyer, Douglas Sears, wrote in a response.

At an April administrate hearing, a judge ordered the sides to try to strike a deal. They did, with PUC agreeing to lower the fine of just $5,000.

"The settlement allowed for the charges to be kept intact," a PUC spokeswoman, Terrie Prosper, wrote in an email.

Hill said it was obvious that the agency "just settled this for its own convenience. It's shameful."

Follow Thomas Peele @thomas_peele.