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Smog Check Fraud Brings 4-Year Term

June 28, 1992|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WHITTIER — A Whittier mechanic convicted of faking smog check certificates has been sentenced to four years in prison, the longest term ever meted out in California for such an offense.

State regulators said they hope that the prosecution will deter other mechanics from playing dirty with the environment as well as their customers.

Prosecutors said mechanic Tony Capone conspired with dealers of used cars to provide fake smog inspection certificates for cars he never tested. As a result, customers unknowingly bought illegal, polluting cars that ultimately required expensive repairs to meet emission standards.

"Not only was this crime perpetrated against the unsuspecting consumer, but it was also a crime against the environment," said Artie Wu, field operations supervisor for the state Bureau of Automotive Repair.

Norwalk Superior Court Judge Lois Anderson Smaltz sentenced Capone last week to four years in state prison and fined him $5,000 on three counts of perjury and three counts of computer fraud. The perjury counts refer to Capone signing the fraudulent smog check certificates. The computer fraud relates to Capone entering false data into his computerized smog check machine. A jury convicted him in May.

Capone's lawyer blamed the fraud on a former employee rather than Capone. Attorney Donald Oliver added that he was exploring the possibility of an appeal, particularly of the sentence, which he said was harsh.

Investigators with the Bureau of Automotive Repair began scrutinizing Capone's shop, California Smog & Auto Repair, after a customer complaint. From the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant across the street, the bureau conducted a two-day surveillance of all the cars that went into the Painter Avenue garage. Then the bureau compared the cars to vehicles that were issued smog check certificates on those days. In two days, Capone issue 26 smog certificates for cars investigators said never went to his shop. That was about 70% of Capone's business over the period, they said.

"The car lots wuld phone him with information about the cars, and he would certify them without ever having them in the shop," Wu said. "It looked like it was a daily practice."

Wu added that Capone was probably putting smog probes into a car that ran clean and representing that data as belonging to another car. The smog check results for many different cars had suspiciously similar data, he said.

Over a year, the bureau estimated that Capone probably earned more than $120,000 from the scam, a figure Capone's lawyer disputes. The attorney acknowledged that more than half of Capone's business came from smog checks, but he maintained that Capone had a large legitimate clientele.

Capone recruited many of his customers with discount flyers distributed at the Whittier branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles, which is less than half a mile from his shop.

Investigators said they used a sting operation to uncover another illegal moneymaking scheme at the garage. They sent four clean-running cars into California Smog & Auto Repair for a smog check, Wu said. In each case, Capone allegedly told the undercover agents that the cars flunked the smog check and then charged them for repairs.

"He would sell us timing adjustments that he never made," Wu said. The bureau filed petty theft charges against Capone in that case but dropped the charges after Capone's sentencing in the fake certificate case.

Capone faces proceedings to have his professional licenses revoked, and the bureau may file charges against the dealers with whom Capone conspired. The bureau would not release the dealers' names pending the conclusion of its investigation.

Prosecutor John Harrold said he hoped that Capone's fate will serve as a warning in a field where fraud is pervasive. Harrold said about 30% of the smog check shops investigated in Los Angeles County were defrauding their customers or contributing to environmental damage.

Capone's attorney said the judge and the Bureau of Automotive Repair were making an unfair example of his client, whose only previous brush with the law was a drunk driving conviction.

"The agency was handing out flyers to other smog shops with almost a mug shot of Capone, as a warning," Oliver said. "The way they portrayed him, it's like they brought in John Dillinger. Today, I'm surprised to see actual smog over the city, given the smog they said he was creating."

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