SACRAMENTO — The state director of Motor Vehicles, under fire for investigating a college student from Kuwait as a possible terrorist, testified Thursday that he has ordered investigations of other motorists he observed breaking traffic laws.
"I think there is a total of about six," Steve Gourley told a legislative committee, offering no details of the other investigations he has made in his 15 months as director of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Gourley's testimony drew sharp words from members of the committee, and Gourley acknowledged that he had made mistakes, though he argued that he was not attempting to act as a self-appointed police officer.
"From time to time, I might have asked to see who owns a certain vehicle," he told a reporter after the session. "It's hardly an investigation."
Nevertheless, Gourley's agency paid a price for his sleuthing. As at least a partial result of Gourley's testimony, a subcommittee of Senate budget writers struck from the DMV's spending plan $7.7 million that would have been spent to implement a high-tech identification system aimed at preventing driver's license fraud.
Sen. Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista), chairman of the full Budget Committee, voiced fear that under Gourley the DMV's proposed biometric identification system would not safeguard the private information of motorists. The process would read a motorist's facial characteristics and make it more difficult to illegally obtain a driver's license.
Peace told Gourley that it was "very difficult" for the subcommittee to vote for the proposal "if we are not confident in the director."
A few minutes later, Gov. Gray Davis, who appointed Gourley to the $118,514-a-year post, gave Gourley a vote of confidence. "He has made some mistakes, but on balance I think he is doing a good job," the governor said.
Peace, an advocate of personal privacy, recommended that the high-tech program be scrapped until the privacy issues were resolved. The subcommittee agreed.
Gourley appeared before the budget writers five days after the Orange County Register reported that he had ordered a wide-ranging investigation of Fawaz Al Sagheer, a Kuwaiti national who was in this country legally and attended Cerritos College.
Gourley acknowledged that he initiated the probe about a month after a driver he identified as Al Sagheer engaged in several life-threatening acts of reckless driving at 90 mph last August on the Ventura Freeway in Los Angeles.
He said he memorized the vehicle's license number but did not call local police or the California Highway Patrol on his cellular phone to make a report.
"He was going so fast that I could not see any possibility that the Highway Patrol could be of any assistance," Gourley testified.
Gourley insisted his actions were legal. "We [the DMV] are a law enforcement agency," he said.
Peace charged that Gourley had crossed the line into CHP law enforcement territory when he ordered his agents to investigate Al Sagheer's alleged reckless driving and whether his license was valid.
"You don't understand what the jurisdiction of your department is," Peace told Gourley.
Gourley directed his investigators to check out a variety of questions about Al Sagheer. He said they learned that the car had been rented by Al Sagheer, who had an international driver's license. He also said Al Sagheer had previously applied for a California driver's license and a state identification card, but had used false names.
In inter-department memos and messages, investigators were directed to examine whether Al Sagheer was a criminal or "terrorist." At one point, Peace noted, Al Sagheer's home and family members were put under surveillance.
Under questioning from Peace, Gourley, an attorney and former mayor of Culver City, conceded that he may have suggested to high-level officials that Al Sagheer might "even be a terrorist." No such finding was made.
"What I was trying to do is identify this individual, find out who he was, and whether he was in the country as a tourist or otherwise," Gourley said.
He also said he was concerned that Al Sagheer might be a member of a "ring or group" that operated an Internet site that offered international driver's licenses as an illegal substitute for California driver's licenses.
"So, it is your view that the Department of Motor Vehicles has law enforcement responsibilities, including investigating terrorists?" Peace asked Gourley.
"No, no," the director replied.
Later, he conceded that in retrospect he did not handle the Al Sagheer incident properly and told the committee that in the future he would call the CHP.
A high-level Davis administration source, who asked not to be identified, said Highway Patrol officials for several weeks had advised Gourley against pursuing such investigations of motorists.
"He argued that he was a cop and he could do it. He wouldn't listen," the source said.
In an interview later, Gourley said the DMV examinations of other motorists were not as extensive as that of Al Sagheer.
He insisted that he had the legal authority to investigate traffic violators, but denied he had rejected CHP advice against investigating motorist violations.
"I am certainly not a wanna-be cop," Gourley said. "I've never wanted to be [a police officer], but I admire them tremendously."