Editor’s Note: One day after the Pasadena Weekly visited Rusnak Auto Group and inquired about a state Department of Motor Vehicles investigation regarding disabled parking permits — and three hours after this story went to press on Wednesday afternoon — the DMV abruptly closed the case without explanation. The story and the second headline reflect this development. The Weekly is currently waiting for responses to Public Records Act requests filed with the DMV and the Pasadena Police Department regarding their respective investigations into this matter.
The Pasadena Weekly has learned that the state Department of Motor Vehicles has recently closed an investigation into an inordinate number of vehicles belonging to employees of a local car dealership bearing disabled placards.
According to Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez, whose department also investigated, the state probe was spurred by a citizen’s inquiry into more than a dozen vehicles bearing the placards that were parked on St. John Avenue, near Colorado Boulevard, and Union Street — both locations in the immediate vicinity of Rusnak Auto Group.
Reporters with the newspaper also visited the site on a number of occasions earlier this year and observed never fewer than 15 and up to 20 vehicles bearing handicapped placards.
On Tuesday afternoon, there were 14 cars parked on St. John Avenue displaying handicapped placards, with half of those vehicles bearing Rusnak license frames.
An employee inside the Porsche/Audi/Lexus dealership said he was unaware of the DMV investigation. A second employee called the Weekly and referred the paper to the company’s human resources department. That employee refused to reveal his name and hung up when asked for it. Representatives with the human resources department did not return two phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Drivers who have a disabled parking placard displayed in their windshields don’t have to pay for time at parking meters and can park in designated parking spots reserved for handicapped drivers. As part of a statewide operation, the DMV has been cracking down on people forging documents to obtain the placards and has assigned employees to comb through documents to search for irregularities on application forms for those placards.
Sanchez sent several officers to investigate the situation, but a preliminary investigation seemed to indicate that the placards were lawfully obtained.
“A concerned citizen brought to our attention an anomaly regarding the number of handicapped placards concerning the Rusnak Auto Group,” said Sanchez. “A subsequent investigation by the Department of Motor Vehicles revealed the anomaly fell within the legal use of the handicapped placards. The Pasadena Police Department welcomes inquiries when things appear odd or unusual.”
On Monday a representative with the DMV’s public affairs office seemed to contradict Sanchez, saying the investigation was ongoing.
“DMV Investigations is following up on some additional information they received,” said DMV Assistant Deputy Director of Public Affairs Jessica Gonzalez. “So, at this time, I can’t comment on the case.”
When asked if the investigation could be described as ongoing, Gonzalez said yes.
But on Wednesday afternoon, after the Weekly had gone to press, Gonzalez informed the paper that the DMV had closed the investigation.
“I have an update. DMV Investigations now considers this matter closed. Case closed,” Gonzalez wrote.
“The DMV takes the improper use of Disabled Person Parking Placard investigations very seriously,” she continued. “In February 2016, the Pasadena Police Department approached the DMV Investigations Division regarding a complaint they received in which it was stated there was a ‘high number’ of Rusnak employees’ vehicles being parked on the city streets, some in front of the dealership location, that were displaying Disabled Person Parking Placards and not paying the parking meters.
“Working in tandem with Pasadena PD, an undercover investigation was conducted and all the individuals contacted by our undercover officers during the enforcement operation determined the individuals who displayed a Disabled Person Parking Placard were verified to be the registered owner of the placard. Further investigation into this matter determined the placards were issued properly,” Gonzalez concluded.
The Weekly has filed state Public Records Act (PRA) requests with the DMV and Pasadena police to obtain additional information on the investigations.
Prior to that email, a Pasadena police officer involved in the probe — who, like Sanchez, also believed the investigation was over — said a number of the vehicles with placards belonged to Rusnak employees.
“We connected a number of the cars back to Rusnak employees,” said Pasadena Police Lt. John Luna. “We met with the Rusnak administrators. They were very cooperative with us during the investigation and with the DMV and the placards were all found to be lawfully obtained.”
Luna said that no inquiry was made into how many employees actually had the placards, just into the cars parked on the streets.
“The DMV took the lead on the case,” Luna said. “We were just assisting.”
Located in West Pasadena, Rusnak Auto Group specializes in expensive foreign vehicles. According to Dealer Magazine, Rusnak is one of the top 100 dealer groups in the country, with approximately $800 million in annual revenue. The group started in the early 1960s and now has 14 dealerships selling 11 different brands.
Pasadena Parking Manager John Hamblen said he was not aware of the investigation when contacted by the Weekly.
“The DMV did not notify us. That’s not unusual,” Hamblen said. “Absolutely placard abuse is a problem statewide. I wouldn’t say it is higher here than anywhere else, but it certainly happens here.”
According to the DMV, about 2.5 million of the state’s 22 million drivers—nearly one in nine — have handicapped placards.
The DMV has been cracking down on handicapped placard fraud since last summer, when the department launched “Operation Blue Zone.”
As part of that operation, DMV investigators have been searching applications for irregularities that could indicate fraud, including multiple requests made from one location that contain the same medical diagnosis, the same handwriting or the same doctor’s signature.
The crackdown has generated 98 investigations, resulting in 16 convictions. Charges have included perjury, filing false information with the agency, forgery and unauthorized use of personal identifying information.
Illegal use of the placard, such as borrowing one from a friend, can result in six months in the county jail and fines ranging from $250 to $1,000.
Submitting a fraudulent application, however, is a felony that can result in prison time and steep fines.
“The crimes related to submitting a fraudulent application as opposed to catching someone on the street misusing a DPP (Disabled Parking Permit) for parking is quite different,” said DMV Supervising Investigator Calvin Woo in a prepared statement last year after two people were arrested for forging and doctoring signatures to obtain placards.
In that case, Guobin Qin, 29, and his mother Qiaoyun Chen, 50, pled guilty to felony charges of forgery and filing fraudulent documents with a state agency. They were each sentenced to three years of probation and 1,000 hours of public service assisting the disabled community
“Parking misuse violations are typically local ordinance infractions or Vehicle Code misdemeanors where the abuser ends up with a hefty fine. Fraud DPP application violations are felonies,” Woo said. That investigation was also conducted as a result of a citizen complaint, he said.
In 1999, 14 players with the UCLA football team were busted for using fake placards obtained by forged signatures so they could avoid paying for parking. The players claimed maladies that ranged from asthma to Bell’s palsy to get the permits. In the end, they all pleaded no contest and faced fines, probation and community service. They were all suspended for the first two games of the season.