In the latest blow to Virginia’s embattled Department of Motor Vehicles, two clerks at the DMV’s Tyson’s Corner branch were arrested last week on charges of participating in a scheme to produce and sell driver’s licenses to unqualified applicants. According to Paul McNulty, U.S. attorney for Virginia’s eastern district, as a result of the scheme, more than 1,000 licenses were illegally sold for prices ranging from $800 to $1,600 since 1998. In many cases, immigrants posed as Virginia residents when they actually lived in other states; in others, immigrants couldn’t prove their identities, or gave a false name or Social Security number. Some of the immigrants needed to obtain the licenses illegally because they had criminal records or immigration problems.
Although Mr. McNulty said that authorities had not found a link between the fraud and terrorist groups (at least so far), this isn’t terribly reassuring — particularly given what was already known about the September 11 attacks and the Virginia DMV’s existing problems with license fraud. Seven of the 19 hijackers who murdered close to 3,000 Americans on September 11 had Virginia identification cards but were not residents of the state. Last year, the House of Delegates passed legislation to close a gaping loophole in Virginia law allowing foreign nationals living in the state to obtain driver’s licenses without having to show that they are legal residents of this country. Unfortunately, that common-sense reform proposal died in the state Senate.
This year, after both houses of the legislature overwhelmingly passed legislation requiring Virginia driver’s license applicants provide documentation that they are in the country legally, Gov. Mark Warner (who had been sitting squarely on the fence) signed the bill into law. It goes into effect Jan. 1.
But the indictments should serve as yet another reminder that the bill won’t solve the problem unless the governor and the General Assembly are determined to change the culture at the DMV. Before September 11, a notary public in Falls Church was sentenced to 33 months in prison for helping as many as 1,000 people a month obtain false Virginia identification cards. Since August 2001, 70 people, including five DMV employees, have been arrested in connection with similar schemes in Virginia, Mr. McNulty said. He added that, unfortunately, “Virginia has developed a significant reputation for being a place where identity fraud can be perpetrated.”
Earlier this year, the Virginia Senate’s Courts of Justice Committee heard testimony from Laurie Manel, a Canadian citizen now living in the state, who described how she went to a DMV office in Manassas post-9/ll and was not asked to produce any identification. When Mrs. Manel, whose story had been previously reported in this newspaper, complained to the head of the DMV office about the virtually non-existent verification procedures, her concerns were brushed off by an official who asserted that “that’s the way the [Warner-appointed] head of the DMV wants it.”
This is intolerable. If the charges contained in the latest indictments are true, the situation needs to change right away.