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The Watchdogs: Chinatown license fraud ring put dangerous drivers on the street

2734 S. Wentworth where authorities say Jun Yun Zhang as leader fraud ring manufactured phony Chinese passports thwere used illegally

2734 S. Wentworth, where authorities say Jun Yun Zhang, as the leader of a fraud ring, manufactured phony Chinese passports that were used to illegally obtain Illinois driver's licenses for immigrants. I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 11, 2013 6:02AM

D riving in Winnetka, Carolyn Parks was stuck in traffic when Chinatown’s criminal world came crashing into hers.

She had just dropped off donations at a charity and was headed home when another driver rear-ended her car on Nov. 11, 2008.

Parks, 69, of Highland Park, was wearing a seat belt, but her head slammed into the steering wheel of her Volkswagen Passat, giving her a mild concussion.

“I was bruised all over, but nothing was broken. I was lucky,” says Parks, who was taken to a hospital.

The other driver, Hunan Li, wasn’t hurt. He jumped out of his Nissan Maxima and apologized repeatedly to Parks.

Li was ticketed for failure to reduce speed.

What Parks — and the police — didn’t know then was that Li was driving on an Illinois license that he obtained by using a fraudulent Chinese passport.

Li, 39, was one of thousands of immigrants suspected of obtaining Illinois driver’s licenses through a Chinatown fraud ring between 2003 and 2008.

An FBI investigation led to charges against the leaders in 2009. Four crooked Secretary of State’s Office employees and dozens of other suspected participants in the ring also have been busted. The ring’s thousands of customers weren’t targeted with criminal charges, though.

With Gov. Pat Quinn now seeking legislation to provide illegal immigrants with Illinois driver’s licenses, a Chicago Sun-Times review of the Chinatown case provides a look at what happens when immigrants get licenses via the black market.

The review of hundreds of driver’s records turned up three Chinese drivers with fraudulent licenses who were involved in injury accidents.

The secretary of state’s office revoked one of their licenses in 2009 during a massive search for scofflaw drivers tied to the Chinatown scheme.

Another driver’s license was canceled in 2011.

But Hunan Li had a license until this fall, when the Sun-Times documented that he had obtained it by using a fraudulent Chinese passport in 2008.

In October, the secretary of state canceled his license, based on the newspaper’s findings.

The Li case raises the possibility that other drivers who obtained their licenses through the Chinatown ring might still be on the road, despite efforts to identify them and revoke their licenses.

About 2,800 drivers have lost their licenses because of the secretary of state’s efforts. But a participant in the Chinatown operation told the FBI that as many as 8,000 people obtained Illinois driver’s licenses and state IDs through the ring.

Many unqualified drivers faked the written test — and didn’t even take a road test, according to the FBI.

U.S. District Judge John W. Darrah presided over the Chinatown case. He sentenced secretary of state office employee James M. Howell last year to two years in prison for taking bribes to approve drivers who took part in the scheme, telling him: “Not only does it promote distrust of the government and public officials, but, more importantly, given the nature of your duties, it potentially put people on the road with valid driver’s licenses that shouldn’t be there. And the potential consequences of that to innocent people must be obvious to you. Lives could be lost, people could be maimed or injured because of your conduct.”

The FBI probe — called Operation Paper Mountain — began with a Chicago Police Department investigation of a brothel in Chinatown in 2005. A worker at the brothel informed the cops about the fake document ring.

The FBI jumped into the case and discovered an operation with tentacles reaching from the South Pacific to New Jersey.

The leader, 45-year-old Jun Yun Zhang, came to the United States illegally from China about three decades ago. He’s now serving an 81-month prison term for fraud.

Zhang gained access to Social Security cards for Chinese nationals temporarily working in Saipan, part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — a U.S. territory.

The workers would return to China when their jobs were done, but Zhang held on to their cards, which bore a 586 prefix. He used those Social Security cards to help newcomers from China and other countries including Korea obtain Illinois driver’s licenses illegally.

Paired with fraudulent Chinese passports that Zhang provided, the immigrants were able to obtain legitimate driver’s licenses and state IDs.

Zhang’s ring paid hundreds of bribes — for as little as $100 each — to at least four secretary of state office employees to give passing test scores to his customers.

In exchange, those customers paid Zhang as much as $3,500 for a set of fake documents that included a driver’s license.

At least 35 people have been charged in Chicago in the Chinatown operation.

The investigation also led to Newark, N.J., where more than 50 people have been charged in a scheme that authorities say bilked lenders out of more than $4 million using fraudulent driver’s licenses from Illinois and other states.

Others face criminal charges in the Mariana Islands.

When the FBI began investigating, the agents noticed something odd. From the 1970s to 2002, fewer than 800 Illinois driver’s licenses were issued to people using the 586 Social Security prefix. But between 2003 and 2008, more than 15,000 licenses and state IDs were issued to those with the prefix.

The spike in 586 licenses was suspicious because Illinois authorities didn’t know of a major influx of people from Guam, Saipan or other parts of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The FBI estimated that 7,500 to 8,000 people obtained Illinois driver’s licenses and state IDs fraudulently through the Chinatown ring. There are more 586 licenses and IDs than people because some of them received duplicates or replacements.

Jim Burns, the inspector general for the secretary of state’s office and the former U.S. attorney in Chicago, said the FBI didn’t provide his office with a list of suspicious drivers. That made it harder to weed out the fraudulent 586 licenses from the legitimate ones, Burns said.

The FBI had provided the state agency with a list of suspicious drivers in the earlier licenses-for-bribes scandal that led to the 2006 conviction of Gov. George Ryan, Burns noted.

“We felt our people did a fair job of ferreting out who should be cited in,” he said of the Chinatown case. “They damn near went through every file.”

In 2009, the secretary of state’s office canceled more than 1,600 licenses. Of those drivers, more than 60 of them were involved in serious problems ranging from DUIs to accidents, according to state records.

Another 1,100 suspicious drivers were asked to come in for a re-test, but almost none showed up, and their licenses were canceled, too.

But thousands of people continue to drive on Illinois licenses obtained with 586 Social Security cards. The state wasn’t able to prove they were obtained through fraud.

As a result of Operation Paper Mountain, the state joined the FBI and other agencies in a task force that shares information about suspected ID fraud.

“To say the 586 situation didn’t get our attention would be kidding you,” Burns said.

The secretary of state’s office made other changes to make it easier to catch ID fraud.

In the past, for example, immigrants were able to present passports and other documents to employees at every secretary of state’s office facility and get a “counter issue” license the same day.

Now, they must go through “central issue” — the office in Springfield — allowing more time to double-check whether the documents are authentic. The licenses are sent to drivers in the mail.

Between May 2009 and April 2012, more than 4,600 licenses were approved through “central issue.”

The secretary of state’s office is currently on alert for people applying for licenses with Moldavian passports, Burns said. There also was a recent license-fraud scheme involving Mexican immigrants. The FBI busted that ring, too.

Ald. Ricardo Munoz (45th) saw his father sent to prison in 2009 for being part of the Mexican fraud ring based in Little Village. Prosecutors allege that members of the ring murdered at least one competitor.

In Illinois, legislation is under consideration to allow undocumented immigrants to take the state’s driver’s test and receive special licenses. The governor and Mayor Rahm Emanuel back the bill, which has bipartisan support. The secretary of state’s office is taking a neutral position on the bill, a spokesman said.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which also supports the measure, estimates there are hundreds of thousands of unlicensed immigrant drivers who haven’t undergone any testing.

They — and the drivers who obtain licenses illegally — pose a great risk to the public, authorities say.

“The fact is, to quote a former governor of ours, these driver’s licenses are bleeping golden,” Burns said. “These are national IDs, in effect. We have to do everything we can to ensure the integrity of our documents.”

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