By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In February, Agnew and Mason met with seven TxDOT officials. Agency officials could not believe any fakers had slipped through their application process.
The reality: It was a breeze.
"It is really, really easy for people to forge paperwork," admits Kim Sue Lia Perkes, spokesman for TxDOT. "We're in this kind of situation where the world has changed, and you can't work by the honor system anymore."
The agency decided to re-examine the documentation for all 67 Legion of Valor plate-holders. They sent letters to 11 asking for them to resubmit the records, including their military discharge form, called a DD 214, and award certificate proving their eligibility. Most did not respond.
"We, too, want to cancel and alert the Texas Department of Public Safety [and FBI] about any impostors we might find," Perkes says. The agency now is in the process of canceling eight Legion of Valor plates; two phonies have surrendered their plates.
Mason says an elderly San Antonio man turned in his plates and wrote a letter of apology for lying. "He said it just 'snowballed,'" Mason says.
A loophole in state legislation creating the Legion of Valor plates does not require membership in the group. Mason hopes the Legislature will fix that in January. Those applications are well-scrutinized.
TxDOT plans to change the process for obtaining the special plates to require initial approval in Austin instead of county offices.
"The counties are not really qualified to check the paperwork," Perkes says. "It's even hard for us to check the paperwork."
For most other military plates, Mason says, it's impossible for TXDOT to verify applicants' qualifications.
"You can get a DD 214 off the Internet," Mason says. That and a typewriter can fake a Purple Heart. Though it is illegal to purchase military medals one is not entitled to, they are available on the Internet.
That makes it certain that other phonies have claimed specialty plates. As of February 2008, with about 20 million registered vehicles, the most requested Texas military plate was for Disabled Veterans, at 57,763.
Other plates include: nine Medals of Honor, 279 Flying Cross Medals, 1,712 for POWs and 16,650 Purple Hearts. Other categories include Pearl Harbor Survivor, Vietnam Veteran, World War II Veteran, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. (POW plates will be the next scrutinized.)
"This problem is not unique to Texas," Perkes says. "When it comes to Mr. Agnew and Mr. Mason, we are lucky to have them help us. We would welcome a military database that everyone is signed off on. We have to strike this balance. We can't make it so hard that really deserving people who displayed incredible bravery have to jump through so many hoops. On the other hand, we have to be diligent to make sure this is a deserving recipient."