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Watchdog: Local governments routinely misuse license plates

A state inspector general report says the New

A state inspector general report says the New York State DMV has given government license plates to unauthorized public employees. Credit: Howard Schnapp

To help the public spot a taxpayer funded vehicle being misused to go golfing, shopping, partying or run other personal errands, New York’s DMV has a rule: The license plates must name the agency to which the vehicle belongs.

And while there are a few exceptions, such as vehicles used for undercover policing work, the DMV’s rule is routinely flouted, a state watchdog has found. The DMV is wrongly issuing unmarked plates for vehicles, officials and government employees that don’t qualify for an exception, according to a report by the office of state Inspector General Letizia Tagliafierro.

"This important program, which requires marked license plates, more easily allows the public to detect if government assets are not being used for government business, abused, or misappropriated," the report said of the "Political Subdivision" program.

"Significantly, unmarked license plates are being used for unapproved purposes," the report found.

In addition, according to the report, since agencies aren’t required to surrender old or unused plates, or to display registration stickers on vehicle windshields, there is no practical way to prevent official plates from being put onto unauthorized vehicles and then misused.

In an emailed statement, DMV spokeswoman Lisa Koumjian said: "The NYS DMV appreciates the Inspector General’s review of this important program and accepts all recommendations put forth."

She did not provide a specific timeline but said the recommendations were being put into place.

"Since 2007, the DMV has made significant changes to the program to increase transparency and reduce abuse of publicly owned assets," Koumjian said, "and we look forward to implementing additional measures to further advance those goals."

The report found that DMV recordkeeping policies and even the forms used by government agencies to assess exceptions were either unclear or ran contrary to the DMV’s own rules, leading to vehicles being granted unwarranted exceptions.

For example, although there are approximately 198,000 official license plates in the program, records on nearly 30,000 of them were incomplete, and the inspector general couldn't readily identify to which agency the plates belonged, the report said.

In 2007, a New York Daily News exposé found that vehicles belonging to nongovernment agencies but nevertheless bearing "OFFICIAL" plates were being used to flout parking laws, and the DMV tightened its rules. And in 2014, the DMV for the first time began requiring government vehicles to carry special plates. The plates were also updated to name the corresponding agency.

In addition to law enforcement exceptions, DMV rules allow a vehicle to be exempt if it’s assigned to "highest-ranking publicly elected official" of a political subdivision, such as a mayor, town supervisor, county executive or district attorney. That exception has been misused, the report found.

Examples of misuse cited in the report include:

  • A county official whose vehicle got an unmarked license plate even though he wasn’t the top official in the county.
  • The head of a county public-works department got an unmarked vehicle, even though he wasn’t in charge of the county.
  • The DMV certified multiple vehicles for a county sheriff that were used for civilians for maintenance and other non-policing tasks.

The report did not list which municipalities were found with improper license plates.

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