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Press Release

Federal Grand Jury Issues Indictment in Latest Case in Investigation into DMV Employees Who Took Bribes to Issue Driver’s Licenses

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Central District of California

          LOS ANGELES – A federal grand jury today indicted alleged “brokers” accused of scheming to illegally obtain driver’s licenses for ineligible applicants by paying bribes to corrupt employees of the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

          Carlos Alberto Zea Londono, 58, of Granada Hills, and Eudelia Lopez Martinez, 50, of South Los Angeles, were charged in a superseding indictment with one count of conspiracy to commit honest services mail fraud, a felony offense that carries a statutory maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison.

          Also charged in today’s indictment are Rogelio Zazueta, 52, of Huntington Park, and Arestakes Khachikyan, a.k.a. “Aries,” 54, of Granada Hills, who each face one count of aiding and abetting the illegal production of identification documents, which carries a 15-year statutory maximum prison sentence. The superseding indictment adds two new charges and three additional defendants to a June 2020 indictment that charged only Zazueta with the aiding and abetting count.

          Today’s indictment alleges that, from April to October 2016, Londono and Lopez negotiated the price that ineligible driver’s license applicants would pay in cash to fraudulently receive passing scores on the written test and/or driving test needed to obtain a California driver’s license. The cash payments ranged from $400 to $1,400, according to the indictment.

          The brokers then contacted the scheme’s ringleader – Atanacio Villegas, a.k.a. “A.T.,” 46, of Portales, New Mexico, but who previously lived in Long Beach and who worked as a license registration examiner at the DMV office in Torrance. Londono and Lopez allegedly paid Villegas cash bribes for the issuance of a validly issued California driver’s licenses without applicants taking the necessary tests to legitimately obtain it. The brokers allegedly also provided Villegas the personal identifying information for the driver’s license applicants.

          Villegas then solicited the services of different California DMV employees who also took cash bribes to make fraudulent entries in the DMV’s computer database to indicate that an applicant had passed the necessary written or driving tests – even though the applicant never actually took or passed the required tests to obtain a California driver’s license. Based on the fraudulent entries, the corrupt DMV employees then unlawfully issued instructional permits or driver’s licenses to the applicants, the indictment alleges.

          As a result, the California DMV prepared and mailed a California driver’s license to applicants that they were not lawfully entitled to receive. Law enforcement believes that more than 100 driver’s licenses were illegally issued because of the scheme.

          Zazueta allegedly aided and abetted the unlawful production of a California identification document in July 2016 on behalf of an individual. According to an affidavit filed with a criminal complaint in this case, Zazueta told the individual that he had connections at the Torrance DMV and could get a license for the individual for $1,200. The individual was issued a driver’s permit even though the individual had not taken a written test, the affidavit states.

          The indictment further alleges that Khachikyan aided and abetted the unlawful production of California identification document in July 2016 on behalf of an individual for whom a corrupt DMV employee entered passing scores on a test required for an instructional permit, then issued the permit without the individual taking or passing the required tests.

          An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

          Villegas is scheduled to plead guilty on June 21 to a seven-count information charging him with honest services mail fraud. In his plea agreement, Villegas admitted that he and other DMV employees accepted cash bribes at least several times per week, and otherwise ineligible drivers would be directed to the window of a corrupt DMV employee with an “identifier” such as a red hat, in order to fraudulently obtain their licenses.

          In a related case, Jovana Tameka Nettles, 44, of Norwalk, pleaded guilty on May 17 to three counts of honest services wire fraud. Nettles, a former manager at the DMV office in the Lincoln Park area of Los Angeles, admitted to fraudulently entering passing scores for applicants and issuing instructional permits for applicants who had not taken or passed the required tests in exchange for bribes. Nettles’ sentencing hearing is scheduled for August 23.

          In another related matter, Taliesha Shunte Ratliff, 37, of Gardena, a former DMV employee in Torrance, pleaded guilty in August 2020 to a single-count information charging her with soliciting and accepting bribes. She is expected to be sentenced in the coming months.

          Also, Otto Escobar, Sr., 63, of Granada Hills, pleaded guilty in November 2020 to one count of aiding and abetting concerning programs receiving federal funds. Escobar, who formerly operated the Van Nuys-based OK Driving School, admitted in his plea agreement that, from 2015 to 2017, he charged his customers a fee for obtaining a fraudulent passing DMV score, and to facilitate the fraud, and he collected money used to bribe DMV employees to commit the fraud. Escobar’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 7, at which time he will face 10 years in federal prison.

          The United States Coast Guard Investigative Service and the California Department of Motor Vehicles Office of Internal Affairs is investigating this matter. This matter is a spin-off investigation of CGIS Operation Buzzkill, an investigation to protect maritime safety and security involving the use of fraudulent identification documents by truckers to gain access to secured and restricted areas of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. That investigation resulted in 16 convictions and also resulted in the identification of several corrupt DMV employees who were fraudulently issuing California driver’s licenses.

          Assistant United States Attorneys Amanda M. Bettinelli and Erik M. Silber of the Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section are prosecuting these cases.

Contact

Ciaran McEvoy
Public Information Officer
United States Attorney’s Office
Central District of California (Los Angeles)
ciaran.mcevoy@usdoj.gov
(213) 894-4465

Updated April 18, 2022

Topics
Public Corruption
Release Number: 21-095