Election Section

Federal authorities arrest 20 men for allegedly receiving fraudulent commercial driver’s licenses

By Todd Spangler Associated Press Writer
Tuesday October 02, 2001

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The state Department of Transportation said Monday it canceled a total of 111 fraudulently issued driver’s licenses as part of an investigation into its Pittsburgh office. 

As an extension of that investigation, federal authorities last week arrested 20 Middle Eastern men in seven states, including Texas, who allegedly obtained commercial driver’s licenses fraudulently. Most of those included permits to transport hazardous materials. 

Federal officials said last week they did not believe the arrests were connected to terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. But concerns about chemical or biological terrorism led to heightened scrutiny of the investigation begun more than a year ago by PennDOT. 

Joan Nissley, a PennDOT spokeswoman, said Monday that the 111 licenses included commercial and noncommercial licenses but would not say how many of each were involved. The state Attorney General’s Office refused to release specifics because of the ongoing investigation. 

Nissley said the 111 licenses included those allegedly received by 20 men arrested last week. Eighteen were accused of getting commercial licenses with permits to transport hazard materials through an examiner in Pittsburgh without the required testing or credentials. Two others allegedly had fraudulently obtained commercial licenses without hazardous materials permits. 

Nissley said the entire licensing operation in downtown Pittsburgh was investigated and one examiner was fired for his part in the alleged scheme, in April 2000. She did not release his name. 

Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, said Monday the federal government is prosecuting everyone who received a fraudulent commercial license and who was included in a list produced by the state. 

Buchanan said if more than the 20 Middle Eastern men received commercial driver’s licenses, “we would prosecute.” Federal law only covers commercial driver’s licenses and not noncommercial licenses. 

Transportation officials turned over the investigation to the state Attorney General’s Office in April 2000. On Sept. 21 of this year, 10 days after the attacks, the agency notified the FBI of its investigation. 

In federal warrants, the examiner who helped get the licenses is referred to as a confidential witness. He has not been charged. 

On Monday, Elmeliani Benmoumen, also known as “Ben,” was released on his own recognizance by U.S. Magistrate Kenneth Benson. Accused of arranging with the examiner to get others licenses, he must wear an electronic monitor and surrender his passport. He is not included among the 20 men accused of receiving the licenses. 

A preliminary hearing for Benmoumen and others arrested in the investigation is scheduled for Friday. 

Last week, PennDOT said it received information in February 2000 that two drivers with suspicious licenses were attempting to transfer commercial licenses from Pennsylvania to Washington state. 

The state agency said it learned of an additional 18 driver’s licenses which were fraudulently issued and that “the name of all 20 drivers appeared to be Turkish, Arabic or Pakistani.” In the release, it did not mention any other drivers who allegedly received driver’s licenses fraudulently. 

According to federal warrants, the drivers did not take required tests and some had suspended licenses at the time they got the hazardous materials permits.  

The 21 suspects were arrested last week in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.