Final suspect convicted in California truck scandal

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The latest of 20 people in California who helped put hundreds of unskilled drivers onto the nation’s freeways operating large commercial vehicles has been successfully prosecuted, federal officials said Monday.

All of the defendants in the long-running investigation were eventually convicted and convicted, with the exception of one suspect, who died before trial.

They have been convicted on multiple counts of bribing officials, identity fraud, unauthorized computer access and conspiracy in cases spanning the state from the Los Angeles area to near the Oregon border. Some took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.

These included employees at the California Department of Motor Vehicles who took bribes to record fake results for applicants’ written and driving tests, including some who failed the tests and others who failed to even take the tests, prosecutors said.

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

The owners of the trucking school bribed DMV employees to overtake unqualified drivers.

Overall, prosecutors estimated that the employees fraudulently issued hundreds of commercial driver’s licenses and licenses, thereby endangering public safety.

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

She and a colleague typically received at least $1,500 each time, or more than $277,000 in total, in 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. At the time, investigators linked up to 23 traffic accidents with the fraud. but no deaths.

“It’s frankly quite appalling to allow unqualified drivers to drive heavy-duty vehicles on our freeways,” Carol Webster, deputy special agent for the US Homeland Security Bureau of Investigations in Sacramento, said at the time.

It was the latest of several similar bribery schemes.

Harris received the longest sentence of all, although two others were sentenced to more than four years in prison and three suspects to more than three years. Three suspects were sentenced to at least two years in prison, four others to at least one year.

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

The investigation dragged on through the coronavirus pandemic and two of those convicted were given reduced sentences because of the pandemic.