MVA turns efforts to fraud prevention When reason fails, state always looks for more spending


March 03, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

If you want to know why the state's budget is in such a mess, just repeat after me: "Mo' money, mo' money, mo' money. . . .

That's the song they sing most down in Annapolis. Call it the Mo' Money, Mo' Money Blues.

Just listen to the mo' money mantra chanted by the people who run the Motor Vehicle Administration.

The MVA is seeking a $20 million computerized identification system that will enable its workers to double-check photographs -- and eventually signatures and fingerprints -- before they issue a new driver's license.

State officials say they could get the money from the Maryland Transportation Trust Fund by raising licensing and registration fees. Or, they could use some of the money they hope to raise from a proposed gasoline tax increase. If necessary, they say, they could spread the costs out over a five- to 10-year period so that you and I would hardly even feel it.

But however you cut it, O. James Lighthizer, the state secretary of transportation, is certain his department is going to need mo' money, mo' money, mo' money. He plans to ask for $200,000 in 1993 to study the available technology. He plans to seek the first installment of the $20 million by 1994.

"If the driver's license is to be the end-all for identification, then we are going to have to spend a lot more time and a lot more [mo'] money issuing the license," says Lighthizer.

And why?

Why do we need to raise taxes and increase fees so that the state can get a brand new, state-of-the art, $20 million computerized identification system?

Because an 18-year-old black man named Dontay Carter allegedly walked into the MVA and obtained a driver's license identifying him as a 37-year-old white man.

The suspect then took the phony driver's license and used it to cash checks and charge credit in the 37-year-old white man's name.

The two men did not look alike. They did not have a similar build. I am willing to bet their handwriting was not similar.

Thus, we are proposing to spend $20 million for a computer that will do what any clerk could have done simply by looking up from his or her work station.

As it happens, not even a computer could have prevented what officials are calling "the Dontay Carter incident." State officials allege that Carter obtained the phony license with inside help. An MVA clerk has been suspended, pending termination.

State officials, though, justify this massive $20 million hTC expenditure because in the three weeks since the emotion-charged kidnap-murder-fraud incident, others have complained that they, too, have been victimized by bad guys wielding fraudulent driver's licenses.

How many were victimized?

Officials don't know. To date, there is only anecdotal evidence of problems.

How much of this "problem" is due to fundamental, systemic flaws?

Officials don't know that either, although they doubt the system is seriously compromised.

"The fact is," says MVA administrator Marshall Rickert, "if all of the regulations and procedures that we already have in place are followed, it would be very, very difficult to perpetrate a fraud."

Just to be sure, however, state officials yesterday announced a number of common-sense changes in the way they issue licenses and ID cards.

For instance, they will centralize the procedure so that the authenticity of the application can be checked more thoroughly. Applicants will no longer be able to receive duplicate licenses or ID cards over the counter. The state will open a new hot line number so that lost or stolen licenses can be reported quickly and easily. Most important, the MVA will intensify employee training in detecting fraudulent documents.

These sound like reasonable steps -- particularly in the absence of evidence of massive fraud. These changes also sound fairly inexpensive.

But, of course, reasonable steps never seem dramatic enough when the public is up in arms. There have been several kidnappings, a murder and multiple fraud using MVA driver's licenses.

Something must be done.

Alas, though, public officials seem able to think of only one way to demonstrate that they share the public's outrage: Repeat after me: "Spend mo' money, mo' money, mo' money."

We'll be singing the blues when the bills come due.

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