AUSTIN (KXAN) — Local law enforcement is in a war of words with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality when it comes to how widespread emissions testing fraud is across the state.

After KXAN reporting, TCEQ said it wants to learn why investigators believe five million vehicles were illegally inspected in 2022 in a process known as “clean scanning” — a scheme where fraudulent emissions tests are registered as official state records. The about-face call for a face-to-face comes after the agency’s chairman called the calculations “a dramatic overstatement.”

Sgt. Jose Escribano (left) during a sting operation at the Travis County Tax Office. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

“We need to step up and have a overdramatic response to this, OK?,” said Sgt. Jose Escribano with the Travis County Constable Precinct Three Clean Air Taskforce. “Yeah, you may say it’s ‘overdramatic’ but, again, you don’t have all the numbers. In my opinion, you just have part of the puzzle. We have a little bit more of that puzzle. We’ve been working in it.”

Escribano and his team have been working on fraudulent emissions inspection cases since 2017. He led two sting operations in Austin last month and is considered to be one of the leading experts in the state.

He was not happy when KXAN showed him what TCEQ Chairman Jon Niermann had to say.

“He’s reading off a script,” said Escribano. “I’m not reading off a script. I’m reading off of experience.”

“We stand behind what we said,” he added.

In an email to KXAN, Niermann also called Escribano’s estimate “not credible.” He declined our request for an on-camera interview.

Escribano said his team came up with the five million figure based on confidential law enforcement analysis.

Safety inspections are going away in 2025. Emissions inspections, which Escribano is focusing on, are still required in 17 Texas counties in order to meet federal clean air standards.

‘An opportunity to learn’

“They’re one dimensional, in my opinion, because they’re looking at clean scans and they’re looking at mismatches [with Vehicle Identification Numbers,]” Escribano said of TCEQ. “We’re looking at something a lot deeper than that. I really can’t discuss here because that information, of course, we’re using it and so is DPS [Texas Department of Public Safety] to go ahead and continue their investigations.”

“Concerning Sergeant Escribano’s defense of his estimate, we do not know what confidential parameters he may be referencing nor how any parameters appropriately applied could yield a number anywhere near 5 million vehicles annually,” TCEQ spokesperson Laura Lopez said in a statement. “Accordingly, we see an opportunity to learn from the Sergeant if he is willing to disclose his calculations to us.  We plan to contact him directly.”

“We would welcome to have that opportunity,” Escribano said. “And then see whose numbers are correct.”

Sgt. Jose Escribano at KXAN’s studio to talk about TCEQ’s letter criticizing his agency. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

‘Why hasn’t this stopped?’

Regardless, TCEQ’s own numbers still point to widespread fraud. An independent audit conducted for the agency, looking at inspections from Jan. 1, 2020 through Dec. 31, 2021, identified more than 1.7 million likely clean scans, identified through missing and mismatched VINs.

TCEQ data obtained by KXAN through a public information request shows the agency is aware of more than 1.5 million likely clean scans, identified the same way, between Jan. 1, 2022 and Oct. 5, 2023. That includes:

  • Austin-Round Rock: 21,983
  • El Paso County: 30,144
  • Houston-Galveston-Brazoria: 547,297
  • Dallas-Fort Worth: 934,543

Niermann said those numbers are indicators of “potential fraud” out of 11.9 million emissions tests performed annually. He added there can be “legitimate reasons” for missing and mismatched VINs.

For the Austin-Round Rock area, “the number is less than 15,000 annually—again, including for legitimate reasons,” Niermann said. “While this data suggests what we already
know, i.e., the presence of clean-scanning fraud, it demonstrates the 5-million-vehicle estimate to be a dramatic overstatement.”

This week, Escribano met with DPS to discuss new ways to work together and share information when it comes to stopping fraud.

“We are going to collaborate together,” Escribano said. “We’ve seen that they are working hard to shut these [fraudulent inspection] stations down … As we see things, we’re going to be sharing information, especially the [clean scans] coming here to Travis County … They’re coming, as you know, into Travis County through our tax office to get vehicles registered.”

Niermann told KXAN clean scans have been a “challenge that predates 2017.”

“It has to make you wonder,” Escribano said in response. “We have the right to ask the question: Why hasn’t this stopped?”

  • Travis County Tax Office is rejecting emissions inspections from outside Travis and Williamson counties (KXAN Graphic/Christina Staggs)
  • Tax offices in Dallas and Harris counties have staff trained to detect counterfeit inspections. Neither addressed an ability to detect "clean scans." (KXAN Graphic/Christina Staggs)
  • The El Paso County Tax Office does not have a specific fraud detection program and said it "generally do[es] not reject inspections." (KXAN Graphic/Christina Staggs)

As KXAN first reported this week, the Travis County Tax Office said until the state “can get a handle” on the fraud, it will only accept vehicle inspection reports for cars subject to emissions testing from Travis and Williamson counties. It will also accept safety-only inspections from neighboring counties.

KXAN reached out to the tax offices in the three areas that Escribano said have the highest volume of clean scans. Tax offices in Dallas and Harris counties said staff are trained to detect counterfeit vehicle inspection reports. Neither said anything about “clean scans,” which are entered as official state records with TCEQ by inspectors who are passing vehicles that should fail for a price. El Paso County said it doesn’t have a specific program in place to detect fraud and “generally do[es] not reject inspections.”

Escribano has contacted the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas and is reaching out to state lawmakers. He wants to clarify state law to make it easier to prosecute criminals who are passing vehicles illegally for profit.