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Report: N.J.'s used-car industry rife with abuse

New Jersey's motor vehicle regulator has enabled hundreds of used-car dealers to operate beyond government oversight and perpetrate consumer fraud for years, according to a state report released Wednesday.

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New Jersey's motor vehicle regulator has enabled hundreds of used-car dealers to operate beyond government oversight and perpetrate consumer fraud for years, according to a state report released Wednesday.

The 18-month investigation by the State Commission of Investigation opens a window into the obscure world of multi-dealer complexes or locations. It alleges that some of them have ties to organized crime and a group the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.

Subjects of the investigation immediately hit back, rejecting the commission's conclusions and arguing that the state Motor Vehicle Commission had properly interpreted its rules in accordance with one of Gov. Christie's first executive orders.

The 11 multi-dealer complexes in New Jersey "occupy a loosely regulated niche framed by a history of weak and inconsistent enforcement, aggressive legal challenges, and bureaucratic receptiveness to behind-the-scenes pressure from Trenton lobbyists," said the 178-page report.

Collectively, the dealer-complexes owe about $10 million in unpaid taxes, the report said.

In one case, customers complained of paying money but not receiving their vehicles and purchasing cars that turned out to have severe defects, investigators said.

The independent fact-finding agency referred its findings to state and federal law enforcement authorities and sent recommendations on improving oversight to Christie and the Legislature.

The report, titled "Gaming the System: Abuse and Influence Peddling in New Jersey's Used-Car Industry," describes the Motor Vehicle Commission as a hapless organization co-opted by narrow private interests, including an individual who owns a "sham" multi-dealer complex in Bridgeton, Cumberland County, with ties to the Bonanno organized crime family.

"It's fiction," Louis Civello Jr., owner of the Bridgeton-based New Jersey Dealers Auto Mall, said. "It's made up."

Lobbying on the Dealers Auto Mall's behalf was C. Richard Kamin, a partner with MBI-GluckShaw and former director of the Motor Vehicle Commission's precursor, the Division of Motor Vehicles. Kamin is also a former Republican assemblyman.

In an interview Wednesday, Kamin's attorney, Lee Vartan, called the report "completely out of bounds." The Commission of Investigation, he said, lacks expertise in this area and fundamentally misunderstood the Bridgeton enterprise's business model.

"If Mr. Kamin is going before the Motor Vehicle Commission and he's advocating ethically and legally, which he always was," Vartan said, "and MVC agrees with him, then what did Mr. Kamin do wrong? Nothing."

Alleged abuse was not limited to the Bridgeton enterprise, the report said. For example, Alex Auto Sales Inc., based at a multi-dealer site in Warren County, bought cars at auction and shipped them overseas. Its financial transactions involved banks and institutions that federal prosecutors said had funded the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which the U.S. designates a terrorist organization.

The car dealer stopped working with Lebanese financial institutions in 2011 when he learned of a federal investigation into international used-car transactions, the report said.

Hamze Chehab, the dealer's founder, told investigators that the Motor Vehicle Commission had never visited, inspected, or audited his office.

In a statement, the commission said it had "worked diligently to evaluate the business practices of this industry and has drafted pending regulatory amendments geared toward tightening dealer practices."

The agency said it had performed more than 2,100 audits in multi-dealer complexes across the state, resulting in hundreds of proposed suspensions and warnings and $2.5 million in proposed fines.

The multi-dealer complexes are essentially warehouses and are not the multi-brand locations run by large car dealers. Operators rent space to dealers, many of them from out of state, and offer other services, such as helping them obtain New Jersey dealership licenses. The business model has been lucrative; with low overhead costs, the Bridgeton operator raked in more than $2.2 million annually in gross rent income from some 300 dealer-tenants as of this year, the report said.

Many of these complexes and dealer-tenants flout state regulations that require dealers or employees to be present at their licensed location and open for business for at least 20 hours a week, the report said. This was designed to help consumers and Motor Vehicle Commission staff, who show up unannounced to perform audits.

A 2006 regulation said absentee dealers could authorize a "signatory," meant to be an employee or business partner, to represent them.

Lobbied by Kamin, the Motor Vehicle Commission reinterpreted "signatory" so New Jersey Dealers Auto Mall's administrative staff could represent the tenant-dealers, investigators said.

Motor Vehicle workers told investigators that audits became difficult to conduct because the administrative staff was unfamiliar with the dealers' paperwork.

Investigators said agency managers, lobbied by Kamin, eased compliance requirements for his client and told career staffers to green-light used-car dealer license applications that had been flagged for violations.

New Jersey Dealers Auto Mall has paid Kamin's firm $295,000 since 2006, the report said.

Vartan, Kamin's attorney, said investigators had failed to understand the regulatory framework. The dealers were not "new" or "used" car dealers, but rather wholesale dealers who buy cars at auction and sell them to used car dealerships.

However, state law does not provide for a wholesale license, so the tenants must apply for and comply with used car dealer licenses. Given this gap in regulation, the Motor Vehicle Commission chose to interpret its rules in a manner that was favorable to business, consistent with Christie's executive order, Vartan said.

New Jersey, known for its lax oversight and enforcement, was a natural pick for these dealers to flourish, the report said. Regulators granted licenses to those who have been convicted "for crimes such as money laundering, bank fraud and odometer tampering," the report said.

The Bridgeton property was acquired in the early 1990s by two brothers, Dennis and Steven Altman, who agreed to pay the city delinquent property taxes and utility bills owed by the abandoned site's former owners, investigators said.

According to the testimony of Dennis Altman, his late brother's boating business floundered. Steven Altman secured a loan from a friend, Louis Civello Sr., and gave Civello and his son control of Altman's stake in the Bridgeton business in exchange for loan forgiveness, the report said.

The report said law enforcement in New York and a confidential source had identified Civello Sr. as a "member and soldier" of the Bonanno family.

Testifying before investigators, Civello asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to respond to questions regarding his purported ties to organized crime. He denied playing "any role" in the Bridgeton business, saying it was owned and controlled by his son, the report said.

Civello Sr. was paid $169,400 between 2003 and 2007, the report said, and his wife earned $245,750 from 2003 to 2009.

Civello Jr., in an affidavit responding to the report, attacked Dennis Altman's credibility. Civello Jr. said he had fired Altman after catching him stealing money. A jury awarded Civello Jr.'s company "thousands of dollars" in damages, he wrote in the affidavit.

At trial, Civello Jr. wrote, Altman "blurted out, 'I'm going to lie for my benefit.' " A judge also found that Altman had destroyed evidence that would have been "detrimental to his case," Civello Jr. wrote. "The report appears geared towards shaming my father for reaping the benefits of having raised me as an entrepreneurial son," he wrote.

In 2003, according to the report, the state police investigated the Bridgeton site and described it as a "major conduit of car-sale fraud throughout the Northeast."

Three years later, the commission issued new rules, including the 20-hour-a-week business requirement. Yet problems persisted, the report said.

By 2015, the business was generating more than $2 million a year in rent. "This revenue stream has been sustained in large measure by the dealers' state-sanctioned ability to receive and retain viable New Jersey licenses, all the while flouting the letter and intent of New Jersey's official licensing rules," the report said.

This occurred through "aggressive lawyering, well-connected lobbying and the indulgence of government officials whose actions, and inaction, in response to outside pressure effectively neutered MVC's enforcement of appropriate public laws and regulations and made elements of the agency a tool in service of a narrow private interest."

856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman