Federal authorities have charged six people, including three workers for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, with conspiring in a bribery scheme to issue driving licenses for truckers without requiring them to pass mandatory state tests.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that the scheme involved owners of truck-driving schools who obtained more than 100 commercial driver's licenses for their clients by paying up to $5,000 each for the documents.
The licenses, which have been invalidated along with hundreds of others connected to what prosecutors said was suspicious activity, were for drivers of 18-wheel cargo trucks and other large vehicles.
The truckers who held the licenses were involved in 23 accidents while driving with them, although none of the crashes was fatal, the prosecutors said.
The arrests are the latest in a series of bribery scandals at the DMV that have resulted in charges against 10 employees in two years.
"Public corruption is always a high priority for the U.S. Department of Justice, but our mission is particularly crucial when the conduct not only violates the public trust but endangers public safety," U.S. Atty. Benjamin B. Wagner said at a Sacramento news conference Tuesday.
"We depend on the Department of Motor Vehicles to keep the roads of this state safe, and individuals who undermine that function for personal gain must not expect leniency from the justice system," he said.
Those arrested include two employees of the Salinas DMV office and one in the Sacramento office, Wagner said. The three others owned schools for truck drivers and served as intermediaries between the DMV and aspiring drivers.
Wagner said the investigation is continuing to determine whether more than three DMV workers were involved. Meanwhile, the DMV has revoked or canceled 602 licenses connected to at least one of the six defendants.
In the alleged scheme, DMV databases were altered to show falsely that a driver had passed the written and behind-the-wheel tests the state requires for the licenses, Wagner said.
The investigations began as three separate probes but then merged. The FBI worked with the Department of Homeland Security and the DMV in the inquiry, which began in 2012 when a DMV manager raised questions about one of the agency's workers.
In addition, confidential informants came forward to say they were given licenses without taking necessary tests, and two of the defendants were videotaped engaging in improper activity.
"Allowing unqualified drivers to operate heavy commercial trucks on our highways is honestly quite chilling," said Carol Webster, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations.
The Sacramento DMV worker charged in the case, Andrew Kimura, 30, has been arraigned and entered a plea of not guilty, according to his attorney, William J. Portanova.
The others charged in the case are: Salinas DMV employee Emma Klem, 45, of Salinas; trucking school owner Kulwinder Dosanjh Singh, 58, of Turlock; trucking school owner Pavitar Dosangh Singh, 55, of Sacramento; trucking school owner Mangal Gill, 55, of San Ramon; and DMV examiner Robert Turchin, 65, of Salinas.
Klem and Kulwinder Dosanjh Singh pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to conspiracy to commit bribery and identity fraud. They could face up to five years in prison for each count.
Kulwinder Dosanjh Singh opened Mid-California Truck School in 2007. The school primarily serves students who are immigrants from India, according to his attorney, Christopher Morales.
"Many of them didn't have tons of formal education, and some of them had a tough time reading and passing the written test," Morales said.
"Some part of him was wanting to help these folks who couldn't pass this test," Morales said. "He was looking to help people, but he knew that he committed a crime, and he knew that he did wrong. He pleaded guilty at the first opportunity."
Wagner said the case involves systemic corruption. DMV Investigations Division Chief Frank Alvarez declined to comment on whether all of the cases over the last two years point to a widespread problem in the agency.
Alvarez said the DMV is reviewing its licensing procedures to prevent similar schemes and is aggressive in pursuing allegations of corruption.
"We spend countless hours looking at ways to reduce fraud in the Department of Motor Vehicles," he said.
The criminal charges "send a very clear and loud message that the Department of Motor Vehicles takes fraud and illegal activity very seriously, and it is obviously not tolerated," he said.
In June, a CHP officer was charged with accepting bribes in a licensing scheme at the El Cajon DMV office. In March, an employee of the DMV's Westminster office was arrested and accused of accepting bribes to provide driver's licenses.
In February, a San Diego DMV official pleaded guilty to accepting bribes for setting aside license suspensions and providing unauthorized temporary licenses to drivers who had lost theirs after being arrested on DUI charges.
Last year, five employees of the DMV's El Cajon and Rancho San Diego offices were convicted in connection with a bribery scam in which licenses were improperly provided to clients of a local driving school.
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