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Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Five-Year Probe Uncovers Truck Driver Licensing Fraud
Recently, Missouri officials were about to send a letter to a truck driver, Hussein Osman, requesting him to retake his commercial driver's license test. Before it was sent, however, officials discovered that the driver was killed in an October crash that also claimed the life of Oklahoma State Trooper William McClendon, 37.
Missouri and federal agencies believe that the driving school Osman attended deceitfully granted licenses to several-hundred truck drivers, many of them Somali and Bosnian immigrants.
There are thousands of drivers like Osman on the nation's highways, who obtained their licenses through illicit methods. The federal government has uncovered licensing fraud in 24 states over the past five years. The focus of their investigation is on third-party examiners who are hired by states to test drivers.
During a license fraud case several years ago that involved the illegal sale of truckers' driver's licenses, a Chicago federal judge commented that some of these truckers are like "10-ton torpedoes." That investigation led to last year’s conviction of former Gov. George Ryan on federal corruption charges, and helped alert investigators to other nationwide licensing swindles.
According to Brian Dettelbach, a Transportation Department official in Washington, D.C., the government is currently investigating 21 licensing scams in 13 states.
Investigators for the U.S. Transportation Department investigators report that state's negligence in testing and tracking licensed drivers makes the problem even greater than it first appeared.
Federal investigators were informed by one state that there were "too many suspect drivers to list." Another state was not aware that a federal investigation of licensing fraud had begun. And five states that had pending investigations could not provide investigators with a record of drivers who are suspected of obtaining licenses illegally.
Recently, the federal government counted 15,000 licenses across the nation that are suspected of being obtained under dubious methods. The states in question were not able to supply records for nearly 7,000 of those potentially dangerous drivers.
Last February's report from the U.S. Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General stated, "Unskilled drivers could be operating commercial vehicles on the nation's highways, creating significant risks for death, injury and property damage."
The agency that oversees trucking safety, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, believes it does not have the power to force states to locate drivers with suspicious licenses. Ian Grossman, a spokesman for the safety administration, said, "We will work with the states to contact these drivers and either retest or downgrade them, but we will not compel them."
However, the Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General thinks the agency does have that power.
According to Jason King, a spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which represents state authorities across the U.S., states do cooperate with the federal agency to uncover unqualified drivers.
Yet, according to King, "among the many things on a state's list of priorities, going after suspect fraudulent licenses may not be No. 1."
"The system allows unqualified people to gain access to big trucks," said Todd Spencer, an official with the Missouri-based Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents about 120,000 truck drivers. He went on to say that the system's loopholes "create an open invitation that could be exploited by those who want to cause us great harm," including terrorists.
Since the industry began to deregulate more than two decades ago, commercial driving license fraud has been on the rise. In 1980, the number of interstate trucking firms was 20,000; today it is up to 564,000 firms. According to trucking industry estimates, there are more than 1.5 million truckers in 2007, up 200,000 from 2002.
The depth of the problem was exposed in 1998 when federal and state investigators began looking into the licenses-for-sale scandal in Illinois.
In the end, the investigation led to a 6 1/2-year prison term for former Gov. Ryan on federal corruption charges. Over 75 people were convicted, and more than 1,000 truckers were retested.
The probe also showed that unskilled drivers were on the highways. According to federal officials, at least 9 people, including one truck driver, have perished in crashes involving truckers who are suspected of obtaining their licenses illegally in Illinois.
In 2002, federal investigators cautioned that nearly half the states were improperly monitoring third party testing. Only a handful of states use only state employees for testing. There are seven states that turn all testing over to private firms.
Authorities say that when a state makes it more difficult to obtain a CDL, drivers will seek out other states with less-stringent testing, where testers can be bribed, or where driving schools are not regulated.
"People run to the weakest link," said Terry Montalbano, head of Illinois' commercial driver's license program.
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