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Last of 20 suspects sentenced for helping hundreds of unqualified drivers operate commercial vehicles

The last of 20 people in California who helped put hundreds of unqualified drivers on the nation’s highways operating big commercial vehicles has been successfully prosecuted, federal officials said Monday.

Everyone charged in the long-running investigation was ultimately convicted and sentenced, except for one suspect who died before trial.

They were variously convicted of bribing public officials, identity fraud, accessing computers without authorization and conspiracy in cases that spanned the state from the Los Angeles area to near the Oregon border. Some accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.

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They included employees at the California Department of Motor Vehicles who accepted bribes to record fake scores for applicants’ written and driving tests, including some who could not pass the exams and others who had not even taken the tests, prosecutors said.

Class A commercial drivers’ licenses like the ones involved in some of the alleged bribes are required to operate trucks, including 18-wheel cargo semitrailers. They are more difficult to obtain than regular driver licenses, and applicants must pass both a written test and a behind-the-wheel test that is offered at a limited number of DMV locations.

Trucking school owners bribed the DMV employees to pass unqualified drivers.

In all, prosecutors estimated that the employees issued hundreds of fraudulent commercial driver license permits and licenses, risking public safety.

Among them was longtime DMV employee Shawana Denise Harris, 52, of Phelan. She was sentenced to five years in federal prison earlier this month for updating test scores for at least 185 commercial drivers license applicants.

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She and a colleague were usually paid at least $1,500 each time, or more than $277,000 in total bribes, prosecutors said.

Federal prosecutors said when they first announced the investigation in 2015 that some employees were paid up to $5,000 for each driver in a scam that began at least as early as June 2011. Investigators had linked up to 23 traffic accidents to the scam at the time, but no fatalities.

“Allowing unqualified drivers to operate heavy commercial trucks on our highways is honestly quite chilling,” Carol Webster, acting assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations office in Sacramento, said at the time.

It was the latest of several similar bribery schemes.

Harris received the longest sentence of anyone, although two others were sentenced to more than four years in prison and three suspects to more than three years. Three suspects received sentences of at least two years in prison, and four others at least a year-long sentence.

The last person sentenced was driving school owner Tajinder Singh, one of Harris’ co-defendants. He was fined $5,500 Thursday and sentenced to seven months of home confinement.

The investigation dragged through the coronavirus pandemic, and two of those convicted had their sentences shortened because of the pandemic.

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