Blog Archive

Monday, July 19, 2010

Guv: At least 2 state workers behind ‘The List’

By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune
July 17, 2010 12:15AM

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Kristen Cox, director of the Department of Workforce Services, answered questions from reporters Friday about a list containing private data of alleged illegal immigrants living in Utah. The state has identified and placed on leave two employees from the Department of Workforce Services who accessed state data to compile the list of about 1,300 people who were purportedly in the country illegally.

Two employees with the Department of Workforce Services have been put on leave after an investigation revealed that they apparently accessed records on hundreds of Utah residents to compile a list of 1,300 names of people purportedly in the country illegally.

A handful of other DWS workers also may have been part of the effort and are the subject of an ongoing probe.

“This tactic by these rogue employees to go out and single out individuals and their families and, in some cases, falsely accusing people of an illegal status is in fact deplorable and is in fact counterproductive to the issue that ought to be the focus, which is the illegal immigration issue,” Gov. Gary Herbert said at a press conference.

The two workers were escorted from the state office building where they worked and are on administrative leave pending the completion of the full investigation, said Kristen Cox, Department of Workforce Services executive director. She said it is uncertain if their leave would be unpaid.

“We feel very confident that we have identified the core group,” she said. “The people we’ve identified certainly have strong political opinions and have frustration around the issue of immigration. ... If they want to go rogue, they need to quit the department.”

DWS spokesman David Lewis says there are a handful of other employees — somewhere between three and 10 in all — whose behavior has drawn attention and investigators plan to meet with them next week.

“The other people the investigative team will be talking to on Monday are just suspects at this time,” he said. “The data looks like they’ve accessed certain cases quite a few times. They’re in jobs where they might have a reason to access it, but we want to talk to them and find out what their story is.”

Herbert said he plans to turn the findings of the investigation over to the Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff by Monday.

Shurtleff said he has already had “initial discussions” with federal authorities and will meet with them further to determine if anyone should be prosecuted in state or federal court — or both. The release of health information could constitute federal crimes.

“We’re talking serious crimes that could rise to the level of what we would call a felony crime,” Shurtleff said of the release of data.

A group calling itself “Concerned Citizens of the United States” sent the 29-page document to news outlets and law enforcement agencies, demanding that the people on the list be immediately deported.

Herbert said there will be no state probe of the people named on the list, adding that any such investigation would be a decision of the federal government. “That’s their responsibility, not our’s.”

The list consisted of names, addresses, birth dates and phone numbers of about 1,300 people, including 201 children. It also lists places of employment, due dates for pregnant mothers and more than 30 Social Security numbers.

Under Utah law, it is a misdemeanor, punishable by six months in prison or a $1,000 fine, to release protected information; if a record-keeper steals state records it could be a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

But Herbert said it is also against federal law to violate the privacy of the information in the databases. He said that, as the case progresses, it “will lead to charges filed and a prosecution and, I believe, a conviction.”

U.S. Attorney’s spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch said the office will review the state’s case and determine what, if any, federal law enforcement agency should be involved.

“This obviously was a crime,” said state Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, “and we hope when we get more information things can be fixed.”

Workforce Services administers unemployment benefits, Medicaid, children’s health insurance and food stamps programs. Information on recipients is kept in a massive centralized database that between 1,200 and 1,400 DWS employees can access.

Cox said the department will review its database security and its policy guidance to employees.

There is a whistle-blower defense in the Utah law protecting an individual who violates the law believing he or she is exposing government corruption, and Eli Cawley, co-chairman of the Utah Minuteman Project, said that protection could apply.

“I believe whoever prepared the list is a patriot because they revealed violations of the law” committed by the immigrants, Cawley said, although he said he would not condone the publication of private information of any citizen or legal resident.

The compilation of the list appears to have been a project that spanned months. Cox said the employees didn’t merely just dump a large amount of data into a spreadsheet, but instead manually accessed records based on cases with specific characteristics over an extended period of time.

“These people involved have been very patient, they’ve been very methodical, they’ve been very deliberate,” Herbert said.

Tony Yapias, director of the advocacy group Proyecto Latino de Utah, praised the governor for his quick response and resolution to the issue.

“I think the governor took the first step today to bring back the trust,” he said.

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said the release of confidential information is “highly disturbing.”

“I am deeply concerned about these reports, and assure the public that the U.S. Department of Labor will closely follow and work to support the investigation that has been launched by the state of Utah,” she said. “No one, regardless of race, gender or ethnic background, should fear that by applying for government benefits or programs, he or she is at risk of having personal information revealed. The unauthorized release of such information is against the law, and the perpetrators should be punished.”