SACRAMENTO — Investigators say the quest for a counterfeit-proof driver's license has spawned a black market in genuine but fraudulent licenses issued by state workers in return for bribes of up to $1,000 each.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles fears that thousands of fraudulently issued licenses are on the street. Seventy-nine employees have been fired in connection with the problem.
The California driver's license, held by 20.2 million motorists, is a basic identification document, a "gateway" card for other forms of identification. Licenses are used as proof of identity for everything from welfare applications to bank accounts.
The California card incorporates numerous anti-counterfeit safeguards--including holographic images, sophisticated coding and layering--that make it all but impossible to duplicate.
But the increased difficulty of counterfeiting licenses means that people who can't get them legitimately--undocumented immigrants, people with revoked licenses and others--try to buy them by bribing clerks.
"Ironically, as our documents become more tamper-proof, it's become more of a problem," DMV Director Sally Reed said.
The California DMV investigation--known internally as "Operation Clean Sweep"--has led to the firing of 24 clerks since May, most of them for driver's license or registration fraud. Six others have been disciplined.
An additional 55 clerks were fired after investigations dating back to January 1996 into similar activities. At least two prison terms have been meted out--a three-year sentence in one case and a one-year term in another, DMV spokesman Bill Gengler said.
Investigators estimate that 250 DMV employees in all may be involved, and that at least 25,000 bogus licenses have hit the streets in the last few years. The bribes ranged from about $200 to $1,000, authorities said.
Investigators say they do not believe the frauds were the work of a single, organized ring. Rather, they believe there were numerous small cells of people working together and sharing the profits.