paper tag nation

TxDMV Director Resigns Amidst Paper Tag Mess

Former director faced criticism over why the state agency was unable to act more quickly to stem the tide of illegal tags

NBCUniversal, Inc.

The executive director of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, Whitney Brewster, resigned Monday as the board that oversees the agency grapples with restoring credibility to the state’s temporary license plate system in the wake of an NBC 5 investigation that exposed how lax security allowed criminals to infiltrate the DMV’s system, create hundreds of thousands of paper license tags, and sell them for profit.

In a resignation letter obtained by NBC 5 Investigates, Brewster said, “Addressing temporary tag abuse has been our highest priority,” and that she is proud of how the department worked to find solutions to the problem. The letter goes on to say, “In leaving, the deck is clear for new leadership.”

The agency confirmed Brewster’s departure in a news release Monday afternoon.

In recent months Brewster faced criticism from law enforcement officials concerned about the number of fraudulent tags on Texas roads, and questions from the agency’s own board about why the DMV did not act more quickly to collaborate with law enforcement and enact measures to stem the tide of illegal tags.

The top executive at the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles is stepping down. Her resignation comes after NBC 5 Investigates exposed how lax security at the DMV allowed criminals to infiltrate the license system to create hundreds of thousands of paper tags and sell them for profit.

One DMV board member, Manny Ramirez, who also heads Fort Worth's police union said Monday that he hoped a n new executive director would help the agency more aggressively stop the fraudsters.

"Our number one priority, and what we are valuing, is public safety and I think that we have an opportunity now to to really lead the charge and make some of the changes that that are necessary to ensure that we can keep our Texas safe", Ramirez told NBC5 Investigates.

By one recent law enforcement estimate, more than 1.2 million fraudulent tags were created in 2021, by people who were able to apply for and obtain Texas car dealers licenses and then access the state’s electronic tag system.

Police said many of those tags are created with false names, addresses, and VIN numbers and can be used to make “ghost cars” that are difficult for police to trace. The fraudulent Texas tags have become a headache for law enforcement in other states too, including Nevada and New York where police say the tags are being used by people attempting to conceal crimes.

In November, NBC 5 Investigates began airing a series of reports that revealed the massive scope of the problem. The reports were the first to use the DMV’s own data to show how tiny dealers, including some that seem to exist only on paper, have printed more temporary paper plates than many of the state’s largest franchise car dealers.  A clear sign, law enforcement investigators said, that those small dealerships were selling tags, and not cars.

The NBC 5 reports also showed how the TxDMV does not meet with dealer license applicants in person or take their fingerprints to verify the identity of the person applying for the dealer license.  Additionally, the TxDMV has allowed dealers to add “authorized users” to their accounts, giving additional un-vetted people the ability to issue temporary tags via the state’s eTag/Web Dealer system.

When confronted with the information NBC 5 Investigates uncovered last fall, Brewster acknowledged the problem had become an “emergency” but insisted her hands had been tied because the agency lacked legislative authority to immediately revoke the licenses of suspect dealers, prior to the passage of a new law in mid-2021. She said the agency was also unsure whether it had the legislative authority to fingerprint people applying for dealer licenses to verify their identities.

But as NBC 5 Investigates continued to delve into the problem, the reporting found some law enforcement officials had complained for years about a lack of cooperation from the DMV and a lack of security in the tag system, including one flaw that allowed unscrupulous dealers to enter false VIN numbers and still obtain temporary tags. The DMV insisted it attempted to fix that flaw after police first raised the concern in 2019, but the agency said it was unaware until December 2021 that fraudsters had found another way to upload files containing false VIN’s and obtain temporary tags. That security loophole was finally closed days after NBC 5 Investigates questioned the agency about it.

At a board meeting 11 days ago the DMV Board gave final approval to new rules that will allow the DMV to more quickly revoke the licenses of dealers suspected of fraud. The board also asked staff to fast-track a plan for fingerprinting dealer applicants.

After that meeting, Ramirez, the lone DMV board member who represents law enforcement, expressed frustration with the amount of time it has taken the DMV to respond to the problem.

Ramirez, who joined the board more recently, said the actions the board approved recently are steps that the agency should have taken, “years ago.”

At that recent board meeting, NBC 5 Investigates asked Brewster how people could trust that she was looking out for Texas when the fraud grew into such a significant problem under her watch.

“So, the agency is required to follow Texas law,” Brewster responded, reiterating that she felt the agency has been hampered by a lack of legislative authority. 

After the initial NBC 5 Investigates reports aired, the chairman of the Texas House Transportation Committee, Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburgh), vowed in December to hold committee hearings to investigate what additional steps need to be taken to correct the problems. Brewster said this month that she expects the tag issue will be an interim charge for the legislature to take up between now and the start of the 2023 legislative session.

In a resignation message released by the DMV Monday Brewster said, "Unfortunately, challenges and difficulties still face the state and our organization."

The statement went on to say, "Often the hardest thing to do as a public servant leader is to step back and accept that you have done everything you can, and that it might be time to allow new leadership to take the reins."

Brewster was named Texas DMV executive director in 2012. A Houston native, Brewster previously served as director of the Alaska Department of Motor Vehicles and before that as Alaska’s director of elections in the office of then-governor Sarah Palin. Brewster was only the second executive director to lead the TxDMV since the agency’s creation in 2009.

In a statement the DMV said Deputy Executive Director Shelly Mellott would lead the agency until the DMV board selects a permanent replacement. The board is scheduled to meet again later this week to discuss the tag situation.


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