I-Team's original investigation that led to George Ryan demise

April 6, 1998 10:00:00 PM PDT
An ABC7 exclusive investigation has uncovered allegations of corruption and fraud at truck driver licensing facilities that are operated by the Illinois Secretary of State's Office. Accusations of payoffs and bribery are surfacing because of a horrible accident that took the lives of six children.

It was November 1994. Chicago minister Scott Willis, his wife, Janet, and their six youngest children were driving to Milwaukee to visit relatives. Their van hit debris from a truck and exploded. It was destroyed by flames. The six Willis children died. Their parents were badly burned.

The driver of the truck that dropped the debris had an Illinois commercial driver's license. Now there are questions about how that driver obtained the CDL license, and, in general, how commercial drivers licenses were obtained throughout most of this decade.

"The depth of our pain is indescribable and the bible expresses our feelings that we sorrow but not without hope," said Scott Willis, victims' father, November 16, 1994.

"We still cry just about every day. We have plenty of moments when we still cry a lot," said Janet Willis, victims' mother.

The Reverend Willis of the Mt. Greenwood Baptist church and his wife, Janet, no longer have visible scars from the fiery crash that incinerated their church van and left their six youngest children dead. But the emotional wounds fester. In the four years since the tragedy these deeply religious people have been trying to answer two questions-- why did this happen and how can it be prevented from ever happening again?

"God must have a reason for everything and maybe in part there's some role here in terms of uncovering this scandal. If this story if this law suit can somehow prevent a similar tragedy or even prevent a serious injury or another death they feel that they've accomplished something," said Joe Power, Willis' attorney.

Wisconsin State Police recovered this chunk of metal from the accident scene. Within a week, witnesses and other truckers helped police track down the truck that had lost its rear taillight assembly.

"I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a red caravan swerve to avoid the assembly and then it caught fire and exploded blowing out the two front doors," said a witness.

Authorities identified the man, 33-year-old Ricardo Guzman, as the driver of the truck that dropped the debris, puncturing the van's gas tank. No criminal charges and no traffic citations have ever been filed against Guzman.

"Nothing happened at all. Mr. Guzman was not charged, he was not fined, despite numerous violations of state and federal law and frankly the most despicable case that I've ever investigated. Mr.Guzman was not charged with anything," said Power.

According to this police report, when Wisconsin state troopers tried to question Guzman he claimed he could not speak English and needed his brother to translate.

"Frankly, I was shocked. I knew from the beginning as soon as I saw the police report that there was a little odor here because how was he given a CDL when he couldn't speak English," said Power.

The secretary of state's own study guide for applicants provides the rules regarding CDL's. The guide cites the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act, which says the driver must be able to "read and speak the English language sufficiently to understand highway traffic signs and signals in the English language and to respond to official inquiries."

But we've learned that from 1992 to 1995, the Illinois Secretary of State's policy was to disregard the state and federal laws.

During those years non-English speaking applicants for truck driver licenses were allowed to take the required written test-- orally. Also, they could take it in any language they chose. Tests were given orally in Spanish, Polish, Serbian and various other languages. Applicants were allowed to bring in their own translators.

This woman, who we'll call Miss Smith to conceal her identity, still works for the secretary of state. She says she questioned the secretary of state's policies, and repeatedly tried to report cheating and corruption.

"I did question it many, many times as to how we were able to get around it and I never was given a straight answer," said Miss Smith, whistleblower. "I called Washington and basically I asked them is there an English requirement for obtaining a CDL in Illinois and yes there is."

Smith says the oral testing allowed some examiners to rig the tests and pass apparently unqualified applicants.

"There was a special file for oral tests that I was to pass out to the applicants when they came in, and that was made known to me by my manager that certain groups of people were coming in and they were-- quote-- specials. I would then go into the desk of my manager and pull out a manila folder, which housed the various written tests that we were to pass to the oral taking applicants and I do know that those tests were marked. I opened it up and saw them. I saw little pencil marks next to the appropriate letter on the multiple-choice questions," said Miss Smith.

The Willis' attorney suggests that if Ricardo Guzman understood English, he should have understood other drivers who tried to warn him that his taillight assembly was about to fall off. Wisconsin state police say numerous motorists reported trying to warn Guzman.

"This piece was hanging off the side and motorists and truckers were beeping at him motioning to him telling him to get off the road that the piece was ready to break off, they were trying to call him on their walkie talkies," said Power. "If he didn't understand English, that's an obvious reason why he didn't understand what they were saying."

When we approached Guzman outside his home near Humboldt Park he refused to talk to us about the accident. But ABC7 News has obtained a sworn deposition taken after the accident in which Guzman says he does speak English and claims that he took the written CDL exam in English.

However these secretary of state records indicate that's not true. These documents show that Guzman was actually given an "oral exam" because he had problems with "English word comprehension". The records also indicate Guzman passed that oral test and a driving test on the same day at the McCook facility.

But Guzman, in another contradiction to the official record, testifies under oath he took the written test one day and had to come back another day for the road test. It's significant because sources say the CDL facilities do not allow legitimate applicants to take both the written exams and road tests on the same day.

In fact, the manager of the McCook CDL facility where Guzman got his license testified in this deposition that it would be "a miracle" for anyone to pass both tests on the same day.

The end result-- it's still not clear how Guzman actually got his truck driver's license. But Miss Smith says she tried to alert Internal Affairs about the Guzman case and hundreds of others, too.

"I would see these people go in and out of the oral rooms in a pretty short amount of time and I began to wonder just how these people were able to pass the tests in a short amount of time," said Miss Smith.

"I've learned that its the most pervasive corruption I've ever heard of. I mean what's going on in McCook even to date makes Washington D.C. look like Disneyworld," said Power.

"We began to see specials coming in and I refer to them as specials as they were there to specifically call upon the assistance of my then manager, they were given specialized treatment," said Miss Smith. As Smith was required to process more and more so-called "specials", she says it became clear to her that CDL's could be bought.

"I became not only suspicious I became convinced when I was giving an oral test under the direction of my manager when applicants began to fight over why one was getting a special endorsement when the other was not and as the argument continued between the two applicants it was brought up that one guy had paid 500 and the other guy had paid $700," said Miss Smith.

For 14 months Smith says she relentlessly reported cheating and corruption to Internal Affairs investigators for the secretary of state, turning over more than 200 pieces of evidence that fraud had occurred in the CDL testing facilities. But she says nothing was done and that it got worse.

"It was on a late afternoon where two applicants came to the counter and said 'my brother and I are here to take the Haz-Mat test and who do we pay? You or my manager?'" said Miss Smith.

The Willis family wants Ryan's office to turn over the documentation Smith provided to Internal Affairs investigators. Lawyers for the secretary of state have refused saying those records are "privileged, irrelevant and confidential." Late this afternoon the family's lawyers filed a motion seeking a court order that would force the secretary of state to explain why the records have not been turned over. "I'm outraged because I represent a family who were seriously injured and they lost six of their children. It's a tragedy and this man has never acknowledged it and they've known from day one the people out there at McCook-- that's, this was, a McCook special," said Power.

One year after the accident, the secretary of state's director of driver services issued a memo abruptly ending the practice of allowing oral CDL exams in a foreign language and banning the use of translators, citing the same laws they had been disregarding.

The policy may have changed, but according to the whistleblower the corruption continues. "It makes me feel guilty for one that I didn't protest louder that I didn't tell more people more things-- very, very seriously," said Miss Smith.

We asked Secretary of State George Ryan to personally respond to these allegations of driver's license corruption. He declined, a spokesman saying that the Republican candidate for governor was too busy tonight and that Mr. Ryan wanted to see the report before commenting.

Ryan's chief of staff tells ABC7 News that he thinks these charges are politically motivated, claiming that Joe Power, the lawyer for the mother and father of those six dead children, is a devoted Democrat. Mr. Power refutes the suggestion that he's motivated by anything other than his client's best interests.