Smog check technician gets prison time for fraud

LOS ANGELES - A smog check technician accused of working with two others to fraudulently certify thousands of air-polluting vehicles - generating millions in illicit earnings while defrauding the state - was sentenced Wednesday.Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Fred Wapner sentenced Jermaine Elroy Williams, 28, to five years of formal probation, during which time Williams is prohibited from working in the areas of vehicle emissions, registration renewal, new or used vehicle sales, automotive auctions, vehicle rental agencies, dismantlers or employment related to smog certificates. Williams additionally was ordered to serve 365 days in county jail with credit for 225 actual days served, plus 225 days credit for good time/work time. Judge Wapner also ordered the defendant to pay a restitution fine of $1,000. Deputy District Attorney Kelly Sakir of the Environmental Crimes Unit prosecuted the case. The defendant and his accomplices were responsible for the issuance of more fraudulent smog certificates than any other group in the state, according to officials of the State of California Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR). Williams pleaded no contest on March 24 to 25 felony counts - five counts of perjury by declaration and 10 counts each of fraudulent computer access and uttering a false certificate. The defendant pleaded "open" to the court, meaning the plea was not a negotiated settlement with the District Attorney's Office. Williams had been in custody since his arrest on August 12, 2010, but was released by the court upon his open plea, having spent 225 days in county jail. At the time, the court indicated to Williams that he would be given a "time-served" sentence if he pleaded open rather than accept the People's offer of 16 months in state prison. The defendant was formally sentenced today. Williams - the alleged mastermind and sole licensed technician of the group - was charged in August 2010 with co-defendants Rodney Joel Johnson, 52, and Darnell Tyrone Usher, 26. Williams allowed his associates to use his access code and license number to illegally access computer systems connected to the database of the state's Department of Motor Vehicles. By state law, smog check technician access codes and license numbers may not be shared. Only a licensed smog check technician may conduct an inspection, operate the machinery, generate the paperwork and sign the accompanying vehicle inspection report, which is signed under penalty of perjury, the prosecutor said. The charges stem from incidents at two south Los Angeles shops on June 30, 2009, and April 6, 2010, during which the men issued passing smog check certificates to multiple vehicles that were not present at the location and had never been tested. The men engaged in a practice called "clean piping" that involves the use of one vehicle to certify another. While a legitimate smog check costs about $40, fraudulent smog certificates fetch up to $200. Records from the BAR show that Williams' license number was used to fraudulently certify more than 15,000 vehicles between 2007 and 2010, which could have generated as much as $3 million in earnings for the defendants. Co-defendant Johnson - who in 2005, in a different case, pleaded guilty to computer access fraud involving cleaning-piping activities - pleaded no contest on March 24, 2011, to five felony counts each of uttering a false certificate and fraudulent computer access, plus one felony count of forgery. Johnson immediately was sentenced to 16 months in state prison for his open plea to the court. Usher, the only defendant to enter into a plea agreement with the People, pleaded guilty on March 24 to one felony count of fraudulent computer access, one felony count of uttering a false certificate and one misdemeanor count of battery for pushing a state representative who was investigating the illegal activity. He was sentenced on April 8 to five years of formal probation and was given credit for 160 days of custody spent on "house arrest" by way of electronic monitoring. Usher was additionally ordered to pay $1,000 to the BAR. Under the terms of the settlement, Usher may not work with either of the co-defendants while on probation and is prohibited from working in the field of automotive emissions.

********** Published: June 23, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 10