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A Million Here, a Million There

L.A. County cannot afford to be blase about huge check scam

August 10, 1996

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors needs to devote some public meeting time to the matter of a $3-million international check scam involving the county tax collector's office. That didn't happen this past week. It ought to happen during the board's next session.

The lack of attention makes little sense. The check scam was the kind of brazen and long-running criminal event that should scare the living daylights out of any elected or appointed official who is concerned about the county's desperate fiscal straits, not to mention its ability to collect the taxes it is owed. The county's treasurer-tax collector, Larry Monteilh, says that procedures at his office have been tightened. That's not enough. Every supervisor should be on record with a public demand to know exactly what measures have been taken to prevent another such scam.

Twenty-nine people have now been arrested (and 28 of them convicted) on charges of stealing more than 225 property tax checks that later were cashed by members of the conspiracy at local banks and at financial institutions in countries as far-flung as China, Malaysia, Britain and the Philippines. The most recent development came last week with the arraignment of Jesus M. Templo, a county tax clerk.

The investigation involved the county sheriff's forgery fraud detail, the FBI, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Customs Service, the Postal Service and local authorities in Alhambra and Monterey Park. To this day, much remains in question. Authorities, for example, say that more than 1,650 checks were stolen over seven or eight months in 1992 and 1993; those checks apparently have not been negotiated, but they haven't been found either.

It was an observant taxpayer who tipped off the Sheriff's Department to the scam. Later, other taxpayers came forward, all with the same refrain: They were receiving delinquency notices and penalties from the county, even though they had paid on time.

This was no small event, and it ought to lead to many public questions about security in the tax collector's office.

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