Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro this week announced criminal charges against a dozen people accused of taking part in a major organized crime ring that fraudulently obtained more than 1,000 Pennsylvania license plates and used them to fuel a massive criminal enterprise involving automobiles in multiple states.
According to the AG’s office, by illegally renting the license plates in New York City and other locations, the crime ring profited significantly and allowed those who used the fraudulent plates to avoid paying more than $1 million in parking fines and EZ Pass tolls across several states.
The organized crime ring was headed by Rafael Levi, 50, of Brooklyn, N.Y., Shapiro said at a news conference. Charges were also filed against 14 Pennsylvania businesses involved in the crime ring. The charges followed an extensive investigation by the Attorney General’s Insurance Fraud Section and a statewide investigative grand jury.
“This organized criminal ring used legitimate business tactics – applying for licenses and insurance, car loans and purchases – for completely illegitimate purposes,” Shapiro said. “From fraudulently obtained license plates to washed car titles to multiple other frauds, they gamed the system to rack up millions of dollars in illegal profits. It’s widespread criminal conduct, and today we brought a halt to it.”
According to a grand jury presentment made public this week, here are the major elements of the fraudulent schemes perpetrated by the Levi ring:
• License plates: By providing fraudulent documents to the departments of Transportation and State, Levi and his associates illegally obtained more than 1,000 Pennsylvania license plates and rented them out for $400 a month or more. People who got these plates avoided paying parking fines and E-ZPass tolls totaling $1 million in New York, Pennsylvania and neighborhood states.
• Fake insurance cards: The ring provided vehicles with fake insurance cards. When accidents occurred, motorists filed claims with insurance companies, but there was no legitimate policy to pay on.
• Washed car titles: The ring issued phony letters to PennDOT which enabled them to get clean titles on vehicles. The ring scammed $500,000 owed to financial institutions and $100,000 in state sales tax through this part of the scheme.
• Odometer rollbacks: The ring rolled back odometers on 35 cars, enabling them to sell cars for more money than they otherwise would’ve sold for.
• Driver’s licenses: The ring obtained Pennsylvania driver’s licenses at an address in Pennsylvania that the defendants never lived at.
Anyone with information about the individuals or businesses involved in this investigation is encouraged to call the Office of Attorney General’s Insurance Fraud Section at 717-787-0272.
Proposed federal cuts
to Planned Parenthood
topic of roundtable talk
Gov. Tom Wolf and Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards hosted a roundtable discussion this week with patients and community providers about the devastating effects federal budget cuts to Planned Parenthood would have for people in Bucks County and across the state.
“Attacks on women’s health at both federal and state levels are nothing more than politicians inserting themselves between doctors and their patients,” Wolf said. “The attacks on women’s reproductive health care and organizations such as Planned Parenthood put women, especially in rural and under-served communities, at risk of having extremely limited access to essential health services.
In five Pennsylvania counties, Planned Parenthood is the only safety net provider of family planning services.
In addition to devastating consequences to health care services, Wolf said that funding cuts also have other negative effects.
“No funding for Planned Parenthood will have a dramatic impact on Pennsylvania’s Medicaid program,” Wolf said. “Unintended pregnancies will increase and reproductive health services will need to be covered. These have real costs attached to them that the state will have to bear.”
When Texas eliminated Planned Parenthood from its family planning program, researchers found a 27 percent increase in births to women previously on an injectable contraception, and pregnancy-related deaths doubled.
Charter school reform
bills’ goal: Treat all
public schools equally
House Democrats this week unveiled a package of eight charter school reform bills they say are designed to treat all Pennsylvania public schools – both traditional and charter – and their students equally under law.
State Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, chairman of the House Democratic Policy Committee, said he is hopeful for bipartisan support for the bills that he said improve efficiencies and accountability, resulting in more money available for education.
Sate Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, introduced House Bill 1198, which he said would bring charter schools in line with school districts by imposing limits on the surpluses that charter schools may accumulate. Public charter schools would have to refund unassigned fund balances in excess of the limits on a pro rata basis to all school districts that paid tuition to the charter school in the prior school year.
A bill introduced by state Rep. James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, Democratic chairman of the House Education Committee, would end conflicts of interest in tax-funded payments for charter school leases.
The six other bills in the package would:
• Limit charter school management organization fees to no more than 5 percent of tuition charged per student enrolled. Besides limiting overhead, Longietti said his bill would require much more disclosure of financial documentation from for-profit and nonprofit school management organizations.
• Phase in a final recommendation of the Special Education Funding Commission to fix how Pennsylvania pays for high-cost special education students.
• Require charter schools to use the same teacher evaluation system already in use at other public schools.
• Address the millions of dollars’ worth of ads for charter and cyber charter schools, which would have to stop advertising “free” tuition or transportation.
• Provide a clear process for administrators to follow when closing a traditional or charter school building.
• Require school districts and charter schools to transfer student records to each other within 10 days of receiving the request, and this would include attendance records.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.