2009-05-21 / Features

PennDOT Values Customers Over Security

By Kathy Matheson ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - In its zeal to provide good customer service, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has ignored its own security procedures and issued fraudulent driver's licenses that may jeopardize public safety, according to a report released Tuesday.

Software designed to verify Social Security numbers and compare photos taken under different names has not been properly used, nor have PennDOT employees been adequately trained to review identity documents, the grand jury report said.

In releasing the findings, state Attorney General Tom Corbett said the lapses have allowed criminals arrested for homicide, drug trafficking and illegal gun possession to obtain licenses.

"Their fake license is a passport to participate in society,'' Corbett said.

PennDOT officials, who were not consulted before the report's release, expressed surprise at the harsh criticism, saying they have worked with the attorney general's office to report fraud and help the grand jury investigation.

The agency has implemented many anti-fraud measures over the years, Deputy Transportation Secretary Kurt Myers said. And the report's 14 recommendations for improving security include suggestions already under discussion at PennDOT, he said.

"We're certainly going to look at the recommendations,'' Myers said. "Customer service and fraud avoidance are not mutually exclusive.''

The grand jury report summarizes a series of probes that began in 2002 after PennDOT reported dozens of French driver's licenses were being exchanged for Pennsylvania licenses. The French licenses proved to be counterfeit.

Further investigation was spurred in December 2004 after pilot Eugene Cobbs crashed a small plane carrying $24 million in cocaine near Wheeling, W.Va., Corbett said.

Cobbs checked into a nearby motel using a Pennsylvania driver's license with the name Marquis Munroe. A subsequent probe revealed that Cobbs, who was recently captured in Mexico, was one of thousands who obtained a license without a verified Social Security number, apparently because employees overrode computer safeguards.

"Amazingly, they seemed quite willing to sacrifice security for convenience,'' the report said.

Employees took dangerous short cuts due to lack of training and managerial pressure to ensure customers waited no more than 15 minutes, the report said. About 90 percent of the fraudulent licenses were issued in Philadelphia, officials said.

The grand jury recommended that PennDOT hire more staff, station state police at driver's license centers to deter fraud, provide regular security training and testing, and require customers to pick up licenses in person instead of mailing them home.

Corbett said the issues have been discussed with officials at the federal Department of Homeland Security, but he would not elaborate.

Over the past 18 months, more than 45 people have been accused of using stolen or fake identities to obtain licenses, but officials said many more cases were unable to be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations. About half of those charged have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to terms ranging from probation to 32-to-120 months, Corbett said.

On Tuesday, authorities arrested Robert Banks, 33, of Philadelphia on charges of forgery and other offenses for allegedly obtaining 45 fraudulent licenses for others between 2001 and 2003.

Banks used a now-closed loophole in PennDOT regulations that allowed Pennsylvania service members stationed outof state to obtain licenses via mail, authorities said.

Banks declined comment as he was led from the attorney general's office in Philadelphia.

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