SAN DIEGO (AP) — Five California Department of Motor Vehicles employees were charged in what federal prosecutors said Wednesday was a scheme that produced hundreds of fraudulent driver licenses for bribes of up to $3,000 each.
Applicants who failed driving tests or were unwilling to take them paid "recruiters" who, in turn, bribed employees at offices in suburban El Cajon and Rancho San Diego to enter false scores, according to the complaint.
Four state employees and the head of a driving school in El Cajon were charged with bribery. The complaint charges 16 others, mostly applicants accused of paying bribes.
The FBI made 17 arrests Wednesday in San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange counties. Two others were issued notices to appear in court, and two were at-large.
"Fortunately we have no indications these false driver licenses have been used or are being used in ways to commit acts threatening our national security," said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy.
Investigators found no evidence that the applicants were illegal immigrants, who are prohibited from getting drivers licenses in California, Duffy said.
The Department of Motor Vehicles said it began revoking the licenses Wednesday. Kathryn Door, chief of investigations, said the agency took the charges seriously.
"It is never easy to stand up here and talk about corruption in your own agency," Door said at a news conference.
Applicants paid $400 to $500 each for regular driver licenses and between $2,500 and $3,000 for commercial driver licenses, according to the complaint.
The "recruiters" passed along $75 to $200 to state employees for each regular license and $100 to $600 for each commercial license.
Some applicants were unfit to drive, according to the complaint. In September, one applicant got a license after stopping at a green light and driving on the wrong side of the road four times during her test.
In December, a state employee expressed concern that an applicant was "gonna kill someone" but agreed to issue a license anyway, the complaint said.
The investigation began after a three-month review of the El Cajon office in December 2010 raised questions. One applicant was shown completing the driver test that takes at least 20 minutes in only seven minutes.
Duffy said it was unclear when the bribery scheme began and said she could not be more precise about how many fraudulent licenses were issued. She said the investigation would continue.
The complaint alleges that Kuvan Adil Piromari, 42, of U.S. Driving School in El Cajon served as a go-between for the applicants and state employees. No one answered the phone at his office.
The defendants were scheduled to make initial court appearances Thursday.