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Scheme Provided Fake Texas Auto Documents to Dozens of Immigrants: Driver's License Operation Extends to Car Inspections, Titles, Plates, Officials Say

Aug 20, 2007

By Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning News

Aug. 21--AUSTIN -- Dozens of foreign citizens who came to Dallas between 2003 and 2005 to obtain fraudulent Texas driver's licenses also received falsified Texas auto inspections, vehicle titles, license plates and insurance policies, most without ever bringing their cars here, state officials confirmed.

So far, the only criminal charges in the case are against the man federal authorities call the ringleader of the driver's license operation, 44-year-old Isaac Banai. And while that scandal has cast a spotlight on the Texas Department of Public Safety, which issues licenses, the state's systems for insurance, inspections and vehicle registrations have yet to face similar scrutiny, even though failings there helped illegal immigrants get several layers of official paperwork.

There's no evidence of ties to terrorism; instead, authorities suspect it was designed as a fake accident ring or an insurance rate scam. But they fear people with worse intentions could take advantage of the same vulnerabilities.

"The more you peel back the onion, the worse this starts to smell," said Robert Black, spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry. "Not only did they get driver's licenses, they were basically creating identities."

Mr. Black said the governor wants the agencies involved to get to the bottom of the case and make appropriate policy changes. The DPS oversees state inspection stations, while registrations and license plates are processed by county tax offices.

Some changes

DPS officials have said they have changed some policies as a result of the driver's license scheme. In that case, the U.S. attorney's office in Dallas accuses Mr. Banai of drawing illegal immigrants from the East Coast to Texas to get state IDs.

For $500, authorities contend, the Israeli-born taxi driver would pick the immigrants up at the airport, teach them how to pass the state driving test using a motel as their phony address, and retrieve the license and mail it to them. Most of his customers were from New York or New Jersey, where Mr. Banai advertised his trips in local Israeli publications.

Mr. Banai, who pleaded not guilty and is set to be tried in October, is accused of using the scam nearly 400 times over two years. And it cast a stain on the Department of Public Safety, which believed it was following agency policy when it allowed immigrants to get licenses with only a passport and a visa, without having to prove the visa was still valid.

But now, other government agencies appear to have been caught up in the scandal.

Dozens of the immigrants who got fraudulent driver's licenses, if not more, used their time in Texas to create full state identities, a senior investigator in the case said, buying Texas auto insurance and using it to get state auto titles and Texas license plates from Dallas County.

When immigration officials first learned of the driver's licenses, they called Geico's auto insurance regional office in Dallas, and requested the company search for policies linked to the Motel 6 address that participants put on their license applications, said the investigator, who described the inquiry only on condition of anonymity. A first run found more than 20 active policies linked to the motel. Weeks of data analysis turned up even more hits.

When authorities cross-referenced the insurance policies with state vehicle registration records, the investigator said, they found evidence the individuals had been retitling vehicles and getting Texas license plates -- even though the cars were thousands of miles away.

Despite making these links, the investigator said, authorities never pinned down exactly how this arm of the operation worked -- only how easy it was to pull off.

Getting a fraudulent insurance policy isn't tough with a fake address and a real vehicle identification number. Nor is getting a vehicle registered, as long as the individual has proof of insurance and a valid state inspection. But it's less clear how the immigrants got Texas inspections without bringing their cars into the state.

The best theory, the investigator said, is that they paid someone off -- probably at an inspection site -- to fabricate the records.

DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange said Monday that she had not heard of any issues involving vehicle inspections, but "we suspend inspection facilities' licenses when we find they are issuing things improperly." The agency would have to be informed of a specific station suspected of falsifying inspections before it could take action.

Stations are checked rigorously before they are approved to perform inspections and must buy certain equipment to be licensed, Ms. Mange said.

Authorities never confirmed whether Mr. Banai played a role in the operation, though the investigator said everyone believed he organized it as part of the driver's license vacations. Mr. Banai could not be reached for comment, and his attorney has declined to speak to the media about the case.

And some authorities couldn't reach a consensus on the immigrants' intent with the Texas documentation, the investigator said, but there was zero evidence of a terrorist threat. Some investigators believed the individuals simply wanted to secure their status in the U.S. with valid paperwork. Others predicted they were preparing a staged accident ring.

'Rate jumping'

Most likely, the investigator said, they were "rate jumping" -- hoping to work as taxi drivers in New York City while insured with a far cheaper Texas policy. Nearly all of the cars that got retitled and received Geico insurance were sedans, the investigator said, models most commonly found in cab companies. At the same time the Texas scheme was operating, the investigator said, virtually the same operation was uncovered in central Iowa.

Whatever the motivation, Mr. Black said, the most unsettling part is that the operation got this far -- and that the holes, outside of those at the Department of Public Safety, don't seem to have been addressed. It shows how easily other criminals or even terrorists could infiltrate the same systems, he said.

"The proper authorities should pull this thread as far as it goes," Mr. Black said, "and follow it wherever it leads."

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on whether authorities were continuing to investigate the claims and why they didn't pursue further charges. The investigator, however, said authorities were unable to gather enough solid evidence to include it in the indictment.

Officials with Geico, whose insurance policies were key to getting the titles and the license plates, did not return phone calls seeking comment, though the investigator said the fraudulent policies were cancelled.

Fetina Green, a process support supervisor for the Dallas County tax office, which distributes registration and license plates, said she wasn't aware of any federal investigation into fraudulent titles. But, she noted, as long as the insurance policies and supporting documents are valid, "where individuals get their in-state inspections from is not our concern."

"We're just a recording agency; we don't do any investigating," she said. "As long as everything matches up, we give them their registration and plates."

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