Tags: Illinois | Retests | Drivers | After | Bribes-for-Licenses | Scandal

Illinois Retests Drivers After Bribes-for-Licenses Scandal

Tuesday, 07 November 2000 12:00 AM

In some cases, drivers posed such a danger that state licensing examiners halted their road tests and ordered them out from behind the wheel.

These ill-prepared drivers were among a group of 470 driving school students called back for testing in the wake of a federal investigation into an Illinois licenses-for-bribes scandal that goes back at least three years.

The majority of drivers were students of the now-closed New Delhi Driving School. The owner of that school, Bharat Patel, was sentenced last week to 37 months in prison after being convicted of paying bribes to state examiners to pass his students during tests from December 1997 to November 1999.

Monday, 60 drivers went back for their road tests, and only 37 passed. Some of those who failed had had their licenses as long as two years. Since Sept. 25, 295 drivers have taken the written and road tests again, and only 77 have passed. An additional 175 failed to show up.

Although the students were not charged in the scheme, Patel was convicted of paying bribes of $10-$50 apiece on their behalf. Many students interviewed Monday said they were unaware that their instructor had been making bribes.

So far, 32 people have been convicted in the state's ''Operation Safe Road'' probe of license selling in the secretary of state's office. The investigation began while Gov. George Ryan was secretary of state and has found incidents of corruption during and after his tenure, which ended in 1998.

Secretary of State Jesse White, who succeeded Ryan, has ordered a comprehensive retesting of all drivers who obtained licenses under ''questionable means'' during the scandal. White's office estimated that as many as 10,000 drivers might be retested, including regular and commercial license holders. ''There is no precedent for retesting on this scale,'' said Dave Druker, a spokesman for White.

The U.S. attorney's office supplied the names of those who attended the driving school and were tested at the city's West Side driver's license facility. White said the new tests are being done as a precaution. Eight licensing examiners from the West Side facility have pleaded guilty in the scheme, and all but one cooperated in the investigation.

Mike Bauer, a newly appointed supervisor in the West Side office, said examiners have been returning with shocking stories about drivers. ''They were driving over curbs, not stopping at stoplights or stopping at green lights instead of red lights,'' Bauer said. ''We had one examiner who was almost in two accidents.''

In two instances, Bauer said, examiners ended a test midway. ''The policy is that if the driver is that bad, the examiner can terminate the test right there,'' he said.

Bauer said examiners go through harrowing experiences every day, though on a smaller scale. ''You get in a car with people, and you have no idea what the person behind the wheel is going to do,'' he said. ''You're putting your life on the line and hoping they are good.''

On Monday, many of those called in were angry at the suggestion that they had obtained their licenses illegally.

''I was not aware of what happened,'' said Kishore Saripalli, who has been driving with an Illinois license for two years. ''It's not fair that we have to be here because of other people's problems.'' Saripalli said he took about five lessons at the New Delhi Driving School, for which he paid about $30 per lesson. He said he had a license in his native India and needed to learn the rules of the road here.

''I was very surprised. I thought it was a good school,'' said Anju Tiwari. She might have been shortchanged. Tiwari failed her test Monday after her examiner saw that she was driving without shoes. She said she had always driven that way: ''In driving school, they never told me it wasn't OK to drive without shoes.''

''This retesting is harassment,'' said Navin Sanghavi, who brought his wife, Renu, to be retested Monday. He said she wasn't even a student at New Delhi. He thinks she was singled out because of her ethnic background. ''You see who is here. It is mostly immigrants,'' he said. ''Just because someone did something illegal does not mean we all did.''

White said he has relied on the U.S. attorney's office for the names of license holders and does not assume anyone is guilty. The office plans to examine thousands of additional records and documents generated during the investigation to identify drivers who might have obtained their licenses through suspicious means.

When White took over the office in 1999, he first ordered the retesting of truck drivers and commercial license holders suspected of getting their licenses through bribes. About 550 commercial license holders have been tested so far, and only 171 were able to pass the same test.

White's office also has been notifying officials in 11 states of potentially unqualified truck drivers holding Illinois licenses. The states are New York, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Indiana and Michigan.

Since the scandal broke, White has hired former U.S. attorney Jim Burns as inspector general to root out corruption in the office. In addition, all employees, as well as the public, are now encouraged to report suspicious activity. Signs in the office encourage people to speak up.

''We've also sent letters to employees, some along with their paychecks, saying that this kind of activity is unacceptable and that they are operating in a fishbowl,'' spokesman Druker said.

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In some cases, drivers posed such a danger that state licensing examiners halted their road tests and ordered them out from behind the wheel. These ill-prepared drivers were among a group of 470 driving school students called back for testing in the wake of a federal...
Tuesday, 07 November 2000 12:00 AM
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