Report blisters ex-safety leader - Guzman accused of ignoring crimes, registration fraud

Columbus Dispatch, The (OH) - Thursday, February 4, 2010

Author: Randy Ludlow ; THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

A former Ohio public-safety director ignored fraud and potential crimes for more than a year and failed to halt fraudulent vehicle registrations, according to a state investigator.

A report released yesterday by the office of Ohio Inspector General Thomas P. Charles harshly criticized former Public Safety Director Henry Guzman for brushing aside the concerns of Bureau of Motor Vehicles officials.

The report portrays Guzman as placing the profits of Latino businessmen above law-enforcement worries about undocumented immigrants driving cars with fake registration information -- and without licenses and insurance.

"For far too long, Guzman had given the complaints of businessmen with financial motives more credibility than those of BMV investigators and law enforcement officers ... to the detriment of public safety," the report said.

"His lack of action enabled a criminal element to continue to provide blatantly fraudulent and inaccurate information to register thousands of vehicles in the state of Ohio," it said.

The Dispatch revealed on Sept. 13 that Guzman , who resigned on Aug. 27, delayed a crackdown on fraudulent registrations after meeting with 46 largely Latino business owners worried about the impact on their bottom lines.

The meeting was held on July 31, 2008. Officials said that, unknown to Guzman , Latino "runners" were present. They were legal U.S. residents who would collect fees of more than $100 each to register immigrants' vehicles with falsified power-of-attorney forms.

A policy requiring those using such forms to provide the driver's license or state ID number of the person for whom they were registering a vehicle -- to verify vehicle owners' identity -- was to take effect Aug. 1, 2008.

The stricter policy was delayed until Aug. 24, 2009 Investigators said that Guzman could not explain why. The changes were ordered on Aug. 21, 2009, a day after The Dispatch sought information about the delay, the inspector general found.

The inspector general's office said it was forwarding its report to the Franklin County prosecutor for review while working with the State Highway Patrol and BMV investigators to dig into potential crimes involving fraudulent registrations.

BMV Registrar Mike Rankin pushed for more than a year to get the delayed changes enacted, ultimately quitting in frustration.

New Public Safety Director Cathy Collins-Taylor directed BMV officials in October to revoke the registrations of vehicles owned by people who could not provide proof of legal U.S. residency. The registrations of 42,503 vehicles, about half of them in Franklin County, were canceled on Dec. 9, after a legal challenge by a Latino group failed.

The inspector general's report said Guzman 's credibility was compromised when Columbus lawyer Joseph Mas met with him to object to the changes. At the time, Mas, a friend of Guzman 's, was representing the director's son in an unrelated lawsuit.

Mas denied improprieties, saying he did not represent any clients at the meetings and instead attended as a concerned Latino leader. Mas emphasized that he never was interviewed by inspector general's investigators.

The inspector general's report said that its findings also were being sent to the Ohio Supreme Court's disciplinary counsel, who investigates lawyers.

The Department of Public Safety will not comment on the report while it is under review, said spokesman Thomas Hunter. Guzman could not be reached for comment.