September 12, 2008 in City

Driving-school charges dismissed

FBI says ring helped commercial-license applicants cheat
By The Spokesman-Review
 

A federal judge has dismissed all criminal charges against six men associated with operating a commercial driving school in Spokane.

The six were arrested earlier this year after the FBI cracked a ring that agents said paid bribes to a state contractor and used foreign-language interpreters to help Bosnian immigrants cheat on tests to become truck drivers.

U.S. District Court Judge Edward Shea threw out the indictment Monday, saying that the charging document fails to link the defendants’ alleged activities with a crime under federal law.

The judge said he would file a lengthy written order later, providing his “complete rationale for this ruling.”

U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt called a news conference Jan. 24 to announce the arrests and described the operation as a “commercial driver’s license mill.”

“I respectfully disagree with the court,” McDevitt said Thursday when asked for comment about dismissal of the case.

“It would be my intent, after having reviewed it, to appeal the decision,” he said.

With approval from the Department of Justice, the dismissal would be appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Federal authorities ended up with the case after Washington’s Department of Licensing discovered that contractors hired to give commercial driver’s license tests were using foreign-language-speaking testers who were not only interpreting the questions, but also providing the answers in exchange for bribes.

State licensing procedures have since been changed, officials say.

Cleared on pending mail fraud and conspiracy charges by the judge’s ruling were Brano Milovanovic and Tony Gene Lamb, both of Spokane; Ismail Hot, Elvedin Bilanovic, and Aleksander Djordjevic, all of Chicago; and Muhamed Kovacic, of Michigan.

Suad Grebic, of Spokane, was arrested with Milovanovic and charged with mail fraud. His attorney separately has asked the judge to dismiss the charges, but Shea hasn’t yet ruled on that motion.

Assistant Federal Defender Robert Fischer, who represented Milovanovic, and court-appointed defense attorneys for the other defendants, jointly filed motions this summer seeking dismissal of the criminal charges.

The federal law cited in the indictment, Fischer argued, does not pertain to a state-issued driver’s license because it is neither money nor property.

The indictment charging the defendants fails to establish a connection between the activity the defendants were involved in and a violation of federal law, Fischer said.

Milovanovic and Lamb weren’t state employees and neither “owed a fiduciary duty to the state,” the judge said in agreeing with another legal argument advanced by Fischer.

“Accordingly,” the judge said, “there was no relationship creating a duty of honest services to the state or anyone else which support these charges.”

At the time of the arrests, federal authorities said an estimated 100 individuals – most of them Bosnian immigrants – each paid $2,500 to a commercial driving school operated by Milovanovic. The graduates got commercial driver’s licenses recognized by other states under reciprocal agreements with Washington state.

Commercial license-holders can drive 18-wheel semitrucks, including those transporting hazardous and toxic materials, and school buses.

Contact Bill Morlin at billm@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5444.

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