Residents may be driving cars that haven’t been certified as safe, a city report said.
Three Honolulu motor vehicle employees were caught last year fraudulently modifying safety check records – a scheme that allowed used car dealers to save money on repairs and potentially put drivers at risk.
Workers at the Kapolei Satellite City Hall manually overrode expired safety checks and put new dates on them to give certain customers the appearance of being cleared even though they weren’t, according to records Civil Beat obtained via a public records request.
“Falsely extending a safety check month allows dealers to resell vehicles without having to pay for potentially costly repairs uncovered through a safety check inspection, such as tire replacements, worn suspensions…etc.,” a Honolulu Department of Customer Services supervisor wrote in a memo about the arrangement.
“Unknowingly new buyers are also at risk in driving unsafe vehicles.”
Safety inspectors are required to check a number of critical elements, including the tires, battery, brakes, seat belts and airbags as well as steering, suspension and more. Last year, nearly a quarter of 2021 models failed inspection, according to the Hawaii Department of Transportation.
Customer Services Director Kim Hashiro said she was “shocked” by the misconduct.
Thankfully, she said, it was caught through the diligence of supervisors who were monitoring transactions and noticed something was amiss. A review of a limited sample of safety checks revealed 41 transactions that lacked the necessary corroborating paperwork, the report said.
Once identified, the employees were immediately put on administrative leave.
“When this came to our attention, we took very quick action,” Hashiro said. “We take the service that we provide very seriously and the integrity of what we do as seriously. Internal procedures were put into place to remove the employees, to investigate the complaint, and then, of course, to prevent any kind of reoccurrence.”
The documents hid the names of the employees. All three resigned from city employment before facing any discipline, allowing them to maintain their anonymity under the state’s open records law.
However, the metadata of one of the documents – in other words, information about the file itself – indicates one of them was a former customer service representative named Ronda Omalza. Reached by phone, Omalza denied wrongdoing and said she resigned for family reasons.
The customers involved were Bayview Auto Sales LLC, CARPRO LLC and VIP Towing, according to Customer Services spokesman Harold Nedd. Messages left with these businesses were not returned.
Disciplinary records show the bogus approvals were granted between October 2021 and October 2022. The safety check expiration dates were extended for periods as short as one month but oftentimes as long as a year or more.
In one case, a car whose safety sticker expired in June 2019 was given a clearance that would be valid until May 2023.
Clerks Could Change Records Without Approval
It turns out the department was ripe for abuse, according to its own reports.
A lack of internal controls in the computer system meant that employees could manually modify just about anything without a supervisor’s approval. Beyond safety check expiration dates, clerks could change a vehicle’s recorded weight, registration expiration month and “stoppers,” such as unpaid fines, that prevent someone from getting a new license.
To avoid detection, at least one clerk accepted documents from a car dealer outside the office and sneaked them in through the clerk’s bag, a city report said. The whole thing was captured by a security camera.
The lack of internal controls is very concerning, said Honolulu City Councilman Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, who chairs the council’s transportation committee.
“If anybody in the department can just willy-nilly make changes, that raises serious questions,” he said. “Imagine if a car were used in the purpose of crime and someone goes in and changes the record afterward, or before … There are a lot more nefarious things that could’ve happened and maybe did.”
According to Customer Services’ oldest employee, the system has been in place since the 1970s, Hashiro said. The department is now working with the city IT department to upgrade its systems. In the meantime, the department is requiring clerks to provide more documentation to justify their actions.
“In the future, when the system is replaced, we want rule-based controls, where certain fields cannot be modified by an employee, and if that was required, a supervisor would need to be involved,” she said.
Since the misconduct was discovered, Hashiro said the department has also increased employee ethics training from every two years to annually.
“We understand that our employees have a lot of interaction with the public, and they might be approached by different people,” she said. “It’s important (for them) to know that their jobs give them access to information and they need to take that seriously and operate with the utmost professionalism.”
Hashiro said she didn’t know whether the employees were getting money or other bribes for the special treatment.
The DCS supervisor who wrote up the findings suspected collusion.
“Due to the high number of falsified safety check months between the clerks and dealers, there is a high probability that they were working together and fully aware of the false entries,” the report states.
The customer service representatives involved were making between $30,000 to $50,000, according to records provided by the Honolulu Department of Human Resources.
“The state has decided it is critical and important,” Hashiro said.
Following the discovery of the falsified records, the city did not make an effort to contact car buyers nor the dealers that sold the questionable cars, Hashiro said.
“What we’re hoping is that with the employees no longer being at those locations or employed by our department, that the behavior stopped,” Hashiro said.
“The good thing is it’s an annual requirement. So it’s not a long period of time that cars would go between inspections.”
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