California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has become infamous in recent months for long lines, ancient computing technology and mismanagement of its Motor Voter registration program.
But those are hardly the only challenges facing the DMV.
The department also has become the epicenter of federal probes into DMV workers using computers to crack into citizen’s confidential information to steal their identities, and clerks taking bribes to alter driver’s license test results.
In the past seven years, at least 40 such prosecutions have been filed by federal prosecutors in Sacramento and Fresno, and similar cases have been filed throughout the state.
“It seems like a never-ending event,” said McGregor Scott, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento whose office is prosecuting the cases. “This is happening over and over and over again.”
The DMV says it has worked hard at fighting fraud inside its offices, and says the criminal cases being prosecuted are the results of its own investigations.
“The DMV Investigations Division conducts a thorough investigation of every complaint filed and takes action when an employee is found to be committing workplace fraud,” the department said in a statement. “DMV works closely with U.S. Attorney offices statewide to ensure these employees are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
The cases run the gamut: truck driving school owners accused of bribing DMV clerks to alter driver’s license test results; clerks accused of using their computer access to steal driver’s identities and open credit card accounts in their names; and “brokers” acting as middlemen who pay off clerks in DMV parking lots.
The cases began showing up several years ago, but took a noticeable uptick last year, with prosecutors filing at least 20 since then against defendants, including the daughter of a DMV deputy chief of investigations and enforcement.
That suspect, Kari Scattaglia, was a manager who had worked for the DMV since 2007 and was accused of altering DMV computer records to show that applicants had passed tests when they had not, court documents say.
“All totaled, Scattaglia was responsible for the issuance of at least 68 fraudulent licenses, including permits,” according to court documents filed with a plea agreement she entered into last year.
The DMV has said her father had nothing to do with her hiring or that case.
Federal officials say the probes, which have included undercover agents and has broadened to include investigators from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has resulted in hundreds of driver’s licenses being revoked.
Some of the cases have been resolved with guilty pleas, with sentences ranging from probation to four years in federal prison.
But many of them are still pending, including the latest one filed in Sacramento in December.
That indictment charges David Sun, the owner of a Richmond truck driving school, with conspiracy and fraud in an alleged scheme to get driver’s licenses for students who failed written and behind-the-wheel tests with the help of a DMV employee.
The indictment says Sun advertised in online Chinese newspapers and websites for students to use his school, Commercial Driver Institute USA, and that he told them “that he could help them obtain a Class A or Class B commercial CDL, without the students having to take the written exam.”
Sun is also accused of recruiting students from out of state, who then allegedly used the address of a home in Oakland to have the licenses mailed there.
“After the out-of-state students completed their testing for the CDL, they typically returned to their state of residence prior to the DMV mailing the official, hard plastic CDL to the California address the out-of-state students listed on their applications,” the indictment says.
The licenses were then mailed to the out-of-state students, some of whom used their new California licenses to obtain an equivalent license in their own state, the indictment alleges.
Sun was arraigned in court in Sacramento on Oct. 12 and pleaded not guilty.
His lawyer, Patrick Hanly, said after court that Sun plans to go to trial and that there is no evidence to back up the charges. Hanly said investigators questioned a DMV employee whose computer sign-on was believed to have been involved in altering some records, but that the worker denied any knowledge of the matter.
“Where’s the DMV guy?” Hanly asked. “That’s a missing link.”
Hanly added that when students complained to Sun that they were not passing their tests, “My guy said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to study harder.’”