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DMV workers caught taking bribes from drivers who skipped tests

The LA Times logo The LA Times 5/18/2021 Michael Finnegan
a group of people standing in front of a building: Bribes taken by DMV employees put a new stain on the image of one of California's most loathed public agencies. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times) © (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times) Bribes taken by DMV employees put a new stain on the image of one of California's most loathed public agencies. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

If a curb is painted white, is it OK to park?

When is it legal to pass a slow-moving vehicle?

To drive in California, these are the types of questions you need to answer when taking the state's test to get a license.

Unless, that is, you're one of the aspiring motorists who have been bribing DMV employees to skip the test and get a license anyway. At state Department of Motor Vehicles offices in Torrance and Lincoln Park, workers have accepted tens of thousands of dollars in payoffs, federal prosecutors say.

Jovana Tameka Nettles, 44, pleaded guilty Monday to mail fraud for taking cash bribes when she was a manager at the DMV's Lincoln Park office. She admitted to taking part in a conspiracy of DMV employees who approved licenses for unqualified drivers who paid them off. She and her colleagues gave them fraudulent passing scores on both written and driving tests.

The scale of the graft is not yet clear. Nettles is the fifth former DMV employee in Southern California to admit in recent months that she participated in the scheme, but many of the related court records remain under seal.

The corruption puts a new stain on the image of one of California’s most loathed public agencies, known for its excruciating mazes of hours-long lines, its outdated technology and its botched voter registration program.

DMV Director Steve Gordon, the tech entrepreneur hired by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 to overhaul the department, declined to be interviewed.

But the DMV released a statement saying employees who break the law “will be appropriately disciplined.”

“Fraud prevention is one key component of customer service,” it said. “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.”

The DMV has a long history of corruption, including a 2017 case of two workers at San Fernando Valley offices who admitted they took bribes to give driver's licenses to truck drivers who never passed their exams.

In the newest prosecutions, a DMV investigator helped uncover the conspiracy when she noticed suspicious patterns in how the Torrance office was processing applications for driver licenses, court records show.

Surveillance video and staff computer activity led her to zero in on Huel Kennedy, a DMV employee who later admitted to taking weekly bribes that totaled more than $50,000. One of the drivers had failed the written test three times. Kennedy died after pleading guilty to bribery last summer.

a group of people at an airport: The DMV has a long history of corruption, including a 2017 case of two workers at San Fernando Valley offices who admitted they took bribes. Above, the Westminster DMV. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times) © (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times) The DMV has a long history of corruption, including a 2017 case of two workers at San Fernando Valley offices who admitted they took bribes. Above, the Westminster DMV. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Prosecutors identified the ringleader in the latest cases as Atanacio Villegas, who was a license registration examiner at the DMV's Torrance office from 2010 to 2016, then transferred to the Gardena commercial driver license processing center for 10 months before his resignation.

Villegas agreed in March to plead guilty to mail fraud. He admitted that a network of "brokers" would contact him on behalf of drivers who could not pass their driver exams in 2016 and 2017. The brokers passed the driver's bribes to DMV employees to get their licenses.

He and other DMV employees accepted cash bribes at least several times a week, Villegas acknowledged in his plea agreement.

Drivers would be steered to a corrupt DMV employee's window with an "identifier"; the worker would be wearing a red hat, for instance. Villegas often placed the cash bribes in a manila envelope that he put in the DMV employees' lockers.

An undercover officer and an informant helped investigators gather evidence of the payoffs. In one case, Villegas admitted, an informant paid a broker a $3,000 bribe to get a commercial truck driver's license upgraded to permit transit of hazardous materials.

In a court hearing conducted Monday by telephone, Nettles sounded distraught as she answered questions from U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter, Jr.

"You’re sure that this is what you wish to do?" the judge asked just before she pleaded guilty.

"Yes," she responded.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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