News - May 19, 2010

Smog checker agrees to prison for issuing false certificates

By Dave Boyce

A licensed smog-check technician working in Menlo Park pleaded "no contest" May 10 to a perjury charge in connection with some 15 fraudulent certificates issued from Atherton Smog, a testing station on Marsh Road, San Mateo County prosecutors said.

In a plea bargain with Thanh Dang, 33, of San Jose, prosecutors dropped 14 of the 15 perjury counts against him in exchange for a maximum possible sentence of four years in prison, Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe told The Almanac.

The county Probation Office is preparing a report for Criminal Presiding Judge Susan Etezadi, who will consider it and the defense's motion for leniency before deciding on an appropriate sentence on June 30, Mr. Wagstaffe said. Mr. Dang is in custody on $500,000 bail.

Mr. Dang's attorney was not available for comment.

Prosecutors have found no reason to implicate other employees of Atherton Smog, Mr. Wagstaffe said, adding that Mr. Dang also told prosecutors that he had been acting alone.

With two felony counts, or strikes, against him from two attempted robberies in Los Angeles County in 1996, this felony could have been Mr. Dang's third strike, meaning a sentence of 25 years to life, but prosecutors felt that would have been inappropriately severe, Mr. Wagstaffe said.

Were the vehicle owners clued in that their certificates were invalid? In most cases, the majority of victims don't know, Mr. Wagstaffe said, but in this case "the belief is that they knew that they were getting a certificate on a car that might not otherwise qualify."

They also paid Mr. Dang $150 versus the ordinary fee of $80, which is part of how prosecutors traced their whereabouts. In order to get them to cooperate as witnesses, the victims were not charged, Mr. Wagstaffe said.

The state Bureau of Automotive Repair also received anonymous calls, starting in July 2007, alerting them to the scam, known as "clean piping." It's hard to detect since most people cannot tell a car that has been properly checked from one that hasn't.

Mr. Dang is alleged to have given illegal certificates to more than 100 vehicles. "Those cars left the premises the same as when they entered," Mr. Wagstaffe said. "If somebody doesn't call up, this could have gone on forever."

Mr. Dang was using the extra $70 per vehicle to help with his gambling debts, Mr. Wagstaffe said.


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