Residents irate over OMV, state collection agency’s tactics in collecting fines for insurance lapses _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Customers line up at the counter of the main Office of Motor Vehicles office near State Police Headquarters on Independence Boulevard, Thursday, May 21, 2015.

Since the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles sent more than a million letters Oct. 13 asking drivers to pay fines for expired auto insurance, the agency has been deluged with complaints from people claiming they are not at fault and should not have to pay up.

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Now drivers cite additional annoyances: the OMV dropping calls, playing a recorded message to call back later, putting callers on long holds and still demanding payment even when people offer evidence to straighten out their driving records.

State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson, who supervises the OMV, agrees that there have been headaches since the agency’s massive mailing last week.

“We’re dealing with phone calls consistently,” he said. “It’s a little overwhelming at times, because everyone’s one problem is very important to them.”

OMV’s missives are an effort to recoup an estimated $444 million in outstanding debts following passage of a law this year that allows the agency to utilize the state’s in-house collection agency known as the Office of Debt Recovery. But it has prompted an outcry from drivers across the country who say they’re being extorted even after providing proof they weren’t driving without insurance.

Edmonson says the department will cancel fines for people who show evidence they shouldn’t be charged — for example, proof of insurance for the time period in question or documents showing the return of a license plate after moving out of Louisiana. But even logging a complaint is proving difficult for many drivers, especially those whose apparent insurance lapses derive from their out-of-state moves.

“I’m just upset that they’re gonna threaten my credit over (the fact that) I didn’t tell Louisiana ‘bye,’ ” said Jeane Theriot, 33, who said she moved to Beaumont, Texas, in 2009 and obtained new registration and insurance there without any gaps in coverage. She said she never considered telling Louisiana’s OMV she was leaving.

Now that a notice is warning her a collections agency may be enlisted to force her to pay for expired insurance — a charge she says is bogus — she hears a message that “all our circuits are busy” before being hung up on when she calls the OMV, she said.

She’s unable to drive to an OMV office in Louisiana to settle the matter in person, she said. Yet the clock is still ticking toward the 60-day deadline when her debt will be handed over for collection, she said, citing the letter.

Edmonson said he wasn’t aware of the disconnected phone calls but is looking into the situation.

Stanley Massett Jr., of Covington, said that after getting a letter, he provided the OMV evidence he was “double covered” by two auto insurance companies for the period OMV said he had a lapse. After seeing the documentation, an OMV representative told him he didn’t have to pay $525 — the first time the department mentioned this amount — and instead said he had to pay only $125, he said.

“For what?” Massett asked of the reduced fine, calling OMV’s actions an example of extortion. “I want my money back!”

The fines for interrupted insurance will go at least in part toward paying for State Police salary increases, following an appropriation for pay hikes by the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget earlier this year.

Edmonson said the fact that some of the insurance penalties may go toward trooper salaries was not the impetus for sending out the 1.2 million letters.

“We’re not going through this now because we can’t pay our salaries. We’re meeting our salaries. We’re meeting our bills. This is money that’s owed to the state,” he said.

He added the solicitation stemmed from a deadline set by the Department of Revenue to move funds to the state’s Department of the Treasury. The letters sent earlier this month are in some cases just the initial letters that will be sent, and drivers can expect at least one more notice before the debt is sent out for collection, he said.

Of the 1.2 million letters sent, 25,000 have been returned because of bad addresses, Edmonson said.

He said he has extended OMV’s hours to 8 p.m. so representatives can answer more phone calls. The agency is addressing complaints on a case-by-case basis and will refund fines found to be paid in error, he said.

“Bear with us, work with us; nothing has been turned over to collections,” he said.

Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.