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Notary gets probation in immigrant driver's license case
August 30, 2006

A Knoxville notary who cashed in on a service that shuttled illegal immigrants to East Tennessee to get driver's certificates became a covert agent when busted, court records reveal.
Briseida Escalona-Lara's efforts to earn a sentencing break are being credited by federal prosecutors with exposing a flawed Tennessee program that eventually was shut down.

On Tuesday, Escalona-Lara received her reward, with U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan sending her home on probation for her role in notarizing false documents for illegal immigrants.

Escalona-Lara's plea deal was negotiated by defense attorney Angela Morelock.

In a motion explaining why the Knoxville woman was worthy of a break when two others who profited from the illegal immigrant shuttling services racked up prison terms, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Theodore describes the notary's undercover efforts.

It was a raid at her home in July 2005 that spurred her to cooperate with the FBI and others probing an illegal immigrant smuggling ring, Theodore wrote.

She "advised the government of details of a conspiracy to obtain Tennessee driver's licenses involving Zeneida Rivera, who was transporting illegal immigrants from New York and New Jersey to Tennessee," the motion states.

Another ring, based in Georgia and led by Claudio Galvan, was also under investigation. Theodore wrote that Escalona-Lara agreed to work undercover in that probe.

"Working covertly, she recorded conversations with the conspirators and met with them when they came to Tennessee," he wrote. "During her cooperation, the defendant identified several other conspiracy rings. The convictions of Rivera and Galvan helped bring to light some of the problems with the certificates for driving program in Tennessee. As a result, the program has been suspended."

Rivera, 55, was sentenced earlier this year to 46 months in prison, while Galvan, 64, drew a 27-month prison term.

The shuttling operations worked this way: People like Rivera and Galvan charged a fee - ranging from $750 to $950 - to illegal immigrants to bring them to East Tennessee, provide them fake addresses and other documents and take them to driver's license testing centers to be tested.

Tennessee was one of only two states in the nation that issued driver's certificates without requiring proof of U.S. citizenship.

Under the state's certificate program, currently suspended, a recipient needed only to show some proof of residency in East Tennessee within the past six months. Utah has the only other program.

Jamie Satterfield may be reached at 865-342-6308.

Copyright 2006, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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Copyright 2006, KnoxNews. All Rights Reserved.