Five employees at the Torrance and Lincoln Park offices of California’s Department of Motor Vehicles have pleaded guilty in recent months to federal charges of accepting tens of thousands of dollars to give would-be motorists passing grades on written and driving exams, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The scheme began to unravel when a DMV investigator noticed suspicious patterns in how the Torrance office processed applications. Surveillance video and computer activity implicated Huel Kennedy, who she connected to a driver who had flunked the written test three times. Kennedy admitted to receiving a total of more than $50,000 in weekly bribes, and died after pleading guilty to bribery charges last summer.
An undercover investigator and an informant also helped nab Atanacio Villegas, a license registration examiner at the Torrance office from 2010 to 2016 who prosecutors say is the ringleader of the conspiracy. Villegas agreed to plead guilty to a mail fraud charge in March and laid out how the operation worked.
In 2016 and 2017, Villegas admitted, he was in contact with a network of “brokers,” or middlemen who approached him on behalf of drivers who couldn’t pass their tests and give him their bribes several times a week. Villegas would then deliver the cash to fellow conspirators, sometimes putting it in envelopes he would slip into their office lockers. Next, the corrupt employees would signal the license-buyers to come to their window by wearing “signifiers” such as a red hat.
In one case, Villegas says he took $3,000 to upgrade a commercial truck driver’s license to allow him to haul hazardous materials.
The latest crooked DMV worker to take a plea is Jovana Tameka Nettles, 44, who copped to mail fraud Monday, admitting that she took cash payoffs in exchange for giving licenses to unqualified drivers while she was the manager at the Lincoln Park office.
Although there are now five convicted co-conspirators, it’s unclear how many others may have had and hand in the plot because many related court documents are under seal.
Tech entrepreneur Steve Gordon, who Gavin Newsom tapped as DMV director in 2019 to revamp the maligned agency, declined to comment to the Times, but the DMV released a statement saying, “Fraud prevention is one key component of customer service. The DMV takes very seriously its responsibility to uphold the law as we serve our customers and we applaud our thousands of employees who work with integrity and pride.”
It added that employees who break the law “will be appropriately disciplined.”
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