Veronica Rivera's scam was simple. She would park her luxury sedan at Oakland's Claremont Avenue DMV, whip out her cell phone, chat a bit in Tagalog, and the cash would flow. Her clients were illegal immigrants desperate for a driver's license. For a hefty price, she got them one, no questions asked. The operation apparently netted her and her partners inside the DMV several hundred thousand dollars. Then the money came to an end. She and her main partner, Frances Aliganga, were arrested and indicted by a federal grand jury on twelve felony charges, and now each face up to 55 years in prison.
The early-August arrests made headlines around the Bay Area, but a closer look at recently unsealed documents reveals that flaws in the DMV's policies and computer system made it startlingly easy for Aliganga to issue real drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. The documents also raise serious questions about how many other California DMV employees also may have sold IDs to people here illegally. While investigating Rivera and Aliganga's operation, the FBI also uncovered two similar -- but apparently separate -- scams operating out of the same office. The presence of three fraudulent-license rings in one office, along with the ease with which they were able to operate undetected, suggests the statewide scope of such fraud could be vast.
The following account of the nineteen-month undercover investigation is based on information provided by the California Department of Motor Vehicles and a synthesis of three sworn FBI affidavits. One was signed by Special Agent Jason Richards, the other two by Special Agent Susan Sivok. Both are members of the FBI's Northern California Public Corruption Squad.
As with most public corruption cases, the investigation began with a tip. In November 2003, investigators learned that two illegal immigrants had received drivers' licenses at the Claremont branch, one of the busiest DMV offices in Northern California.
Once they started looking, DMV officials quickly determined that employee Frances Aliganga had processed the two licenses in May and October 2003. Aliganga had transferred to Claremont in April 2001 and was promoted four months later to a more responsible position as licensing registration examiner. The $40,000-a-year job gave her the authority to process license paperwork and conduct both the written and driving tests -- essentially without supervision.
Once they examined the two bogus records, DMV officials realized what Aliganga had done. For both, she simply typed the same fake Social Security number -- 000-11-2222 -- into agency computers. Officials immediately ran a report and discovered that she had used the same number 56 other times without being detected.
DMV investigators then interviewed several of the 56 people. Three identified a photo of Aliganga and said they had paid her bribes of $1,000 to $2,800 for licenses. A fourth admitted to paying a woman named "Veronica" $3,000 for a license and gave investigators a cell-phone number that was registered to Rivera.
In February, the FBI decided to go undercover. "I don't think there's anything more damaging than having somebody condemn themselves in their own words on tape," FBI spokeswoman LaRae Quy said in an interview.
On February 27, 2004, an undercover operative identified in affidavits as Agent 1 dialed the cell phone of Rivera, a five-foot-four-inch, 125-pound Filipina who also goes by the name Veronica Antonio. Affecting a thick Hispanic accent, Agent 1 asked about buying a driver's license, and Rivera said it would cost $3,000. She told Agent 1 to get half of the money and call her back in a week.
On March 5, Agent 1 met Rivera in person for the first time. The brash driver's-license broker, who has never worked for the DMV, flashed a page in her calendar, showing the names of some of her other clients. Business was so good, she boasted, that she had a waiting list. Agent 1 paid her $1,500 cash.
After several phone conversations, Agent 1 and Rivera met again. This time, the agent wore a wire for their rendezvous in Rivera's BMW outside the DMV. Rivera told Agent 1 she had set up a meeting inside the branch between the agent and an employee whom she called "the only Filipino lady inside." Rivera then described the employee and sent Agent 1 in. The agent walked by the long lines of people and immediately met with Aliganga, who instructed the agent to have a photo taken and sign documents.
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