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5 Arrested in Raids on Several Auto Smog-Check Sites : Fraud: Suspects are accused of issuing certificates on cars that had never been tested.


BELL — Five people, including a technician at a Bell auto shop, have been arrested in a weeklong raid on smog-check sites in Los Angeles County.

The scheme allegedly involved the sale of certificates to commercial fleet operators such as taxi companies and used-car dealers who wanted to ensure that vehicles that might not meet state smog requirements would be certified as clean, said Jim Schoning, director of the Bureau of Automotive Repair.

Sergio Guevara, 31, was arrested at Bell Radiators, 4410 E. Gage Ave., on charges of selling smog certificates for vehicles that were never tested, according to the state Department of Consumer Affairs.

The four-month investigation leading up to last week's arrests was conducted by the department and by the bureau.

"Basically, a car would never go to the site," Schoning said. "Instead (the dealer or fleet owner) would get on the telephone and say, 'Here's the license number and identification number for the car,' and then the shop owner would run a test on a clean car."

A certificate would be issued based on results of the clean car, he said.

Also arrested were Richard Falcon, 31, owner of S & R Auto Repair, 393 S. Atlantic Blvd., East Los Angeles; Rene Espoza, a technician at S & R Auto; Margarito A. Villa, 39, owner of Villa's Auto Repair, 2557 N. Durfee Ave., El Monte, and Michael Prometheus, 42, owner of Michael's Unocal 76, 3880 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.

"We seized all their equipment and tools and essentially put them out of business that same day," said Jim Conran, director of the Department of Consumer Affairs.

The suspects face charges of computer crimes, perjury and registration forgery and could be sentenced to three years in jail for each count and up to $10,000 in fines, if convicted.

Schoning said some of the shops were issuing as many as 30 certificates a day. Normally a shop will issue about 10 certificates a day, he said.

State law requires that all cars meet state smog-reduction standards and be certified before they can be registered.

Officials did not disclose how much the certificates in question cost but said bogus certificates can run as much as $200. A smog check for a clean-running vehicle typically costs about $34.

Police were looking for six other suspects at shops in Cudahy and East Los Angeles after receiving tips from consumers.

After a December crackdown that resulted in 40 arrests, the district attorney's office filed civil charges early this year against Bell Cab Cooperative Inc. in connection with illegal smog-check certificates. It was the state's biggest crackdown on phony certificates since the smog-check program began in 1984.

Schoning said consumers can protect themselves when purchasing used cars by insisting that autos be taken to independent smog-check stations.

Bureau of Automotive Repair information: (800) 952-5210.

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