A privately operated vehicle licensing office in University Place was shut down this week after an investigation showed it fraudulently licensed vehicles to help people avoid paying taxes and get around taking emissions tests.
Quick Stop Licensing II, at 6718 19th St. W. in the shopping complex behind McDonald’s, was shut down Wednesday by the Pierce County Auditor’s Office.
The business had a contract with the county to process and issue state vehicle licenses. It was closed after a state Department of Licensing investigation showed a “significant portion” of employees engaged in fraudulent licensing practices, County Auditor Julie Anderson said.
“Current and previous employees of the business who were Pierce County residents used Thurston County residential addresses on their vehicle registrations,” Anderson said. “They were registering coworkers’ vehicles, family members and then people who appear to be strangers.”
The owner, whom Anderson called the “most prolific” violator, “created a culture that this was acceptable in the office,” she said.
In addition to employees, an estimated 20 or more Quick Stop customers allegedly used fraudulent addresses.
Quick Stop has until Feb. 25 to file an appeal. The owner could not be reached for comment Friday. A recorded message on the business’ phone line says it hopes to reopen “as soon as possible.”
The auditor’s office was tipped to potential illegal activity at the business in early October by the Centralia Police Department. Officers there had handled a criminal investigation that included an alleged illegal title transfer by Quick Stop.
The auditor’s office initially reprimanded Quick Stop and asked the state to conduct a full investigation while the business remained open.
DOL then audited the business over a two-month period and found “serious legal violations,” Anderson said. It expanded the audit and found fraudulent address violations dating as far back as 2008.
The investigation showed employees helped people avoid paying a 0.3 percent Regional Transit Authority tax collected on behalf of Sound Transit. People living in urban King, Pierce or Snohomish counties pay this tax for local transit-related projects; residents of Thurston County do not.
“We have a law that requires individuals to register their vehicles at their primary residence or principal place of business if it’s a business-owned vehicle,” DOL spokesman Brad Benfield said.
The state wants to ensure vehicle owners pay applicable taxes for the region where they live, including the RTA tax and any local taxes such as those imposed by local transportation benefit districts. The cities of Tacoma, University Place and Lakewood impose a $20 license tab renewal fee.
In Pierce and other high-population counties, drivers of older vehicles also might be required to complete a vehicle emissions test. In Thurston County, they do not.
Anderson said there’s no evidence that vehicle owners paid Quick Stop employees to license them improperly.
“We’re not sure what the motivation was,” she said. “It may have been personal relationships and doing people favors.”
Anderson said this case is unusual; nobody working at the auditor’s office has seen another fraud investigation that led to a licensing office being shut down.
The total amount of tax money lost is unknown. The state Department of Revenue has been asked to investigate.
The county secured all of Quick Stop’s personal records and state-issued equipment. Any customers who might be impacted by the closure, such as those who ordered vehicle tabs through the business, have been notified, Anderson said.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department also will investigate to determine whether there’s enough evidence to refer cases to the prosecutor’s office for charges.
“Anybody that falsified documents and participated in material misrepresentation of facts has been included in the report,” Anderson said.