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Latino advisers warn state has big trust problem

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SALT LAKE CITY — The state government suddenly has a huge trust problem with Latinos, members of the Governor's Hispanic/Latino Advisory Council warned Thursday.

That isn't surprising since the state acknowledges that two rogue Department of Workforce Services employees compiled a list of 1,300 alleged illegal immigrants from its databases and distributed it publicly. But what may be surprising is what some Hispanics think the state is doing now after release of the list.

For example, council member Olga de la Cruz said many Latinos believe the department itself has been distributing copies of "the list" to a variety of groups to help tell people whether they are on it, which they believe threatens private information of people listed.

Council member Carlos Linares said others believe the department is using the list to prosecute illegal immigrants on it who may have used bogus Social Security numbers, or that the state will use data it collects about illegal immigrants to help deport them.

Dave Lewis, the department's communications director, said those beliefs are false and a bit surprising to his agency. Lewis met with the advisory council Thursday to hear what sorts of problems members see and to solicit advice on how to fix the department's image and foster trust.

He noted that "the list" was sent to the news media and law enforcement agencies by the workers who compiled it. Lewis said the department initially did not have a copy but obtained one to research who might have compiled it — and caught the culprits in three days. He said the department has never shared its copy with others.

Lewis said the department researched some Social Security numbers included in "the list" to determine if some people were U.S. citizens or legal residents because of allegations that all people on the list were illegal immigrants.

He said the department does not intend to use information from the list to prosecute anyone. However, the attorney general's office has said it will investigate and perhaps prosecute any Social Security fraud it finds related to the list.

Lewis also said federal and state law prohibits sharing any information it collects with any other agency. He said he hoped that the department's efforts to fire the two employees involved would have made that clear.

"There needs to be on the wall, as you enter, there for all clients and employees, a huge sign saying that you will not give information about immigration status to anyone," said council member Roger Tsai, who is also an immigration attorney.

Several council members complained the state has not made forceful enough statements to create that assurance.

"We have to find a way to restore the trust that was lost," said Sylvia Castro, state Hispanic affairs director. "What happened was an incredibly awful event, but maybe what we can get out of this is an opportunity" to restart building solid Latino relations.

Lewis said methods the department is considering to restore trust include meeting with Latino groups, adopting a zero-tolerance policy to fire anyone who misuses information, and perhaps creating a special team to work with mixed-status families that is trained in what they can and cannot ask — which will also limit who has access to data on illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, the termination letter of one of the two department employees fired for involvement with "the list" — Leah D. Carson — gives more insight into what happened.

"By your own admission, you accessed private information for inappropriate purposes, shared the information with a co-worker and failed to inform the department of this co-worker's intent to distribute the information," said the July 20 letter to Carson.

It was obtained through an open records request by the Deseret News and adds that Carson violated "professional standards of conduct expected of a DWS employee."

The other employee who Carson helped is reportedly Teresa Bassett. The department has started the process to fire Bassett. She has told other news media that she did nothing wrong, and her lawyer has said she is fighting the plans to fire her.

Unlike Bassett, who was a full-time employee, Carson was a temporary worker and as such could be fired without the right to appeal, according to her termination letter.

Carson had been employed in the imaging department, which is responsible for scanning documents such as utility bills and other paperwork used to verify customers' addresses and income levels.

Bassett had worked for the state for various departments for nearly 17 years.

e-mail: lee@desnews.com