A North Hollywood smog-check mechanic pleaded guilty Wednesday to fraud and became the 17th defendant convicted in a recent crackdown on Los Angeles County auto-repair shops that traffic in phony smog certificates.
Joo Heun Nam, a mechanic at Lee's Auto Repair in the 7600 block of Lankershim Boulevard, pleaded guilty in Los Angeles Municipal Court to a single misdemeanor count of using a computer to defraud. Under a sentencing agreement, Nam is to pay $8,832 in fines and investigation costs, and will have a choice of serving 60 days in jail or performing 480 hours of community service, said Deputy City Atty. Don Kass.
Charges are still pending against Lee's Auto and its owner, Hyun Ku Lee, according to Kass, who said an investigation revealed that 164 of the 359 certificates issued by the shop in a recent one-month period were "obviously fraudulent."
Nam, 34, was among about 50 Los Angeles County smog-check mechanics and shop owners arrested in December and January in the largest anti-fraud crackdown in the nine-year history of the state smog-check program. The sting, conducted by a task force including the state Bureau of Automotive Repair and state Air Resources Board, targeted 26 smog shops. Authorities said more are under investigation.
Before Nam's plea bargain, 16 other defendants had reached plea agreements with the Los Angeles County district attorney's office or city attorney's office, and were sentenced to up to seven months in jail.
Kass said Nam was targeted in August when an undercover agent from the Bureau of Automotive Repair purchased a smog certificate without bringing in a car. He said Nam charged the agent $60--about twice the normal cost of a smog inspection.
In a smog test, a car's vehicle identification number is entered in a computer linked to the bureau's computer in Sacramento, while an electronic probe inserted in the tailpipe measures polluting emissions.
Kass said that in this case--as in many of the others--Nam entered the genuine identification number but put the tailpipe monitor in "what is euphemistically called 'a zero car' " that is sure to pass the test.
Kass said authorities later analyzed computer printouts for the 359 certificates issued in August by Lee's Auto Repair. He said they noted virtually "the same emission readings on blocks of cars where, because of the various types of cars involved, it would have been impossible to have identical emission readings."
He said this analysis led to the conclusion that at least 164 of the tests were phony.
At $60 per certificate, the shop would have reaped "$9,840 in fraudulent profits" that month alone, or about $118,000 in a year's time, Kass said.
Nam's lawyer, Christopher N. Lee, no relation to the smog shop owner, said Nam received "a fixed income" and did not profit from the illegal activity, which Lee said predated Nam's employment with the shop.
Nam was "employed with the strict understanding that he was to be engaged in this activity," Lee said.
There was "fraudulent activity going on . . . before Mr. Nam was hired."
Lee said Nam, who lost his job when he was arrested in January, will opt for community service.
A misdemeanor conviction for computer fraud carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
As part of his plea bargain, Nam also got three years probation and will not be allowed to perform smog checks or repairs during that period.