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July 29, 2005

Oswego DMV Clerk Snags Federal Agent

OSWEGO - The early afternoon of June 1 was a busy time at the Oswego Department of Motor Vehicles Office.

Brenda Earl, a motor vehicles clerk for 27 years, noticed there were several people waiting in line when a man with a Michigan driver's license approached her counter around 1:30 to get a New York State license. When she asked for his identification he handed her a social security card and his out-of-state license.

"Right away I knew the social security card was bad. It was very evident," Earl said.

Since September 2001 the state Department of Motor Vehicles has worked with county clerks and DMV employees across the state to detect counterfeit documents that could be used to obtain false identification.

According to Oswego County Clerk George Williams, the confiscation of false documents is an important tool used by law enforcement officials. DMV staff are trained to follow certain procedures when it appears a person is using a false document.

Williams said that Earl "went above the call of duty" by discreetly retaining the customer and following established protocol.

Earl knew that her office supervisor, Colleen Bacon, would be returning from lunch shortly. She needed to share her suspicions with the supervisor and determine if the paperwork was counterfeit. "I tried to figure out a way to keep him," said Earl. "I told him we needed an eye test and that we needed to take his picture, and made believe I was processing the license."

When Colleen returned, she and Brenda examined the social security card under an ultraviolet light and verified that it was a fake. "We have security tools that we use to check the documents," Earl explained. Bacon immediately contacted their regional fraud supervisor in Syracuse, who arrived in Oswego in about 45 minutes.

Earl confiscated the counterfeit social security card and explained to the man from Michigan that he needed to get a valid card. "I told him I had reason to believe that the card wasn't valid, and gave him an opportunity to apply for a duplicate card. We had no reason to detain him further, and he went on his merry way."

They soon learned that the man from Michigan was actually an undercover officer from the federal Homeland Security Office. He was testing the system to see how easy it is to get a New York State driver's license using fraudulent identification.

Brenda and Colleen did exactly what they were supposed to do - delay the individual, capture their photo, and contact an investigator, according Raymond Martinez Jr., Commissioner of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.

Martinez said the Oswego DMV office is one of two locations in the state that were selected by the Department of Homeland Security for the sting operation. He attended the July meeting of the Oswego County Legislature to commend Earl and County Clerk George Williams for catching the counterfeit document and passing the undercover agent's test.

"The fact is that New York State was being tested," said Martinez. "It came down to how well the office was run. The fact is, it really came down to one person, as it so often does."

Earl, who has helped to detain illegal aliens in the past at the DMV, said she was "just doing her job." The difficult part for her was trying to discreetly detain the customer and follow procedures while serving other customers when the office was shorthanded. "I was able to do what I needed to," she said. "Any of the girls would have done the same thing. It was very easy to detect."

She said the staff is well trained and often helps each other when documents are questionable.

Her commendation, signed by County Legislature Chairman Russ Johnson, describes the incident as an "example of proficiency in critical situations (that) not only protects our families and our community but gives testimony to Oswego County's great pride in its employees."

The certificate commends Earl as "an outstanding employee, deserving of community recognition and the gratitude of this legislature."

Martinez said the exercise was "extremely important." He pointed out that New York State "is way ahead of the curve" because of the training that agencies have done with county clerks and their staff.

"I think you have a great county clerk," he added.

Martinez will testify in Washington about homeland security issues later this summer. He said he would use Oswego County as an example of how the system is supposed to work. "I will certainly mention the fact that the Oswego County Clerk's Office is so well run," he said.

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