In the race to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Terri Lynn Land, a Republican, has been running neck-and-neck with her likely general election challenger, Rep. Gary Peters, a Democrat. Land has also kept pace on fundraising -- a surprise to those who expected Michigan would be strongly favorable turf for Democrats.
Propelling Land in part has been her prior success as a statewide candidate: She was elected to two four-year terms as Secretary of State, first taking office in 2003.
But so far unacknowledged by Land is that during her tenure, Michigan became a hotbed of identification fraud, which fell under her office's purview — and that her department did not grasp the scope of the problem until the federal government stepped in.
Today, Land’s campaign website touts her success “rooting out fraudulent activity," and indeed, Land’s administration ultimately did take steps to make the licensing process in Michigan more thorough.
In 2003, for example, Land’s administration announced the state would make more versions of driver’s tests, and in 2004, Land welcomed action by the state legislature to enact harsher penalties for fraud.
Late in 2004, the Michigan Department of State also began to require proof of residency for a new drivers license or state I.D. card — but only after the federal government pointed to Michigan as an epicenter of identification fraud nationwide and approached Land’s administration with the problem.
According to an Associate Press article from the time, “Land spokeswoman Kelly Chesney said her office had no idea of the seriousness of the problem until a meeting with Justice Department officials in October” of 2004. The loophole was closed that December.
Not soon enough, however, to prevent Michigan from becoming “one of the easiest places” to obtain a fraudulent I.D., Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Brian Moskowitz said at the time.
“We saw an alarming amount of … cases where groups were bringing criminals or illegal aliens to Michigan for the sole purpose of obtaining a Michigan driver’s license,” Moskowitz was quoted as saying.
The flaws in the system ran so deep that a few Michigan state employees had been exploiting them further, and for profit, according to court documents obtained by the Washington Examiner — and the crimes were committed apparently unbeknownst to Land’s administration.
Two state department clerks who overlapped with Land’s tenure, Kimberly Murray and Barbara Wilkey, were arrested in 2005 for accepting bribes in exchange for Michigan I.D.s.
From 2003 to 2005, Wilkey “received regular payments via cash, entertainment, or repayment of gambling debts,” according to a federal government press release from the time, to supply undocumented immigrants with I.D.s -- even though she knew, according to court filings, that they were in the country illegally and had traveled to Michigan for the sole purpose of obtaining Michigan I.D.s.
Murray, who worked at a Detroit branch office, “issued fraudulent Michigan Identification documents to at least eight to ten persons in exchange for a fee of about $300 per person,” according to court filings.
Both Murray and Wilkey were later convicted and sentenced to prison time. Another Michigan Department of State clerk, Regjean Welch, was also convicted on charges of having sold state identification documents in 2001; Welch remained employed by the state until her arrest in 2005.
It’s not clear whether Land publicly addressed the convictions at the time. A campaign spokesperson for Land did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Land was re-elected in 2006, and her Department of State continued to reform Michigan's licensing procedures -- to the point that, by 2008, some Democrats were calling the measures “extreme.”