Attorney says owner complied with immigration laws

(Published Aug. 11, 2006, 10:29 a.m.)

By Mike Heine/The Week

A Whitewater business owner accused of employing illegal immigrants did what is required in checking employee identities, according to his defense attorney.

"In this country, an employer has the obligation under federal law to ask for identification, and that's it," attorney Frank Lettenberger said. "That's what this employer has been doing."

Tuesday morning, Whitewater police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and sheriff's deputies raided Allan Petrie's business--Star Packaging, 960 E. Milwaukee St., Whitewater. They took away 25 workers they say are illegal immigrants.

Petrie faces a potential charge of conspiracy to commit identity theft for financial gain, Assistant District Attorney Dennis Krueger said at Petrie's bail hearing Wednesday. Petrie was released on a signature bond.

"There is an allegation that Mr. Petrie may be employing workers who are illegal aliens who are using false Social Security numbers to gain employment," Krueger said.

The Whitewater Police Department has contacted Petrie several times during an investigation that started in February, Lt. Lisa Otterbacher said.

While Petrie was perhaps the first business owner arrested under these circumstances, the investigation into his business was not an isolated incident, she said.

Police have contacted other businesses in Whitewater and told owners that they might be employing illegal immigrants. Those businesses had released suspected illegal immigrants, Otterbacher said.

Employers are not required to check with the Social Security administration as to whether a Social Security number is valid. Companies are required to verify two forms of identification before hiring a person, such as a Social Security card, U.S. citizen ID, birth certificate, driver's license, school ID with photograph or voter registration.

Lettenberger found it peculiar that Whitewater Investigator Larry Meyer led the investigation into Star Packaging.

Meyer currently has an open civil suit in federal court filed by another Whitewater businessman, Steve D. Cvicker, owner of Whitewater Rock and Mulch. The lawsuit alleges Meyer harassed Cvicker and caused his business to suffer.

Meyer went to Cvicker's business last year and "verbally intimidated" all employees of Mexican descent, telling them not to work there anymore, according to Cvicker's lawsuit.

Cvicker also claims Meyer accused him of hiring illegal immigrants, but Cvicker has not been charged with such alleged crimes.

Meyer has denied all of Cvicker's allegations.

"There seems to be a consistent pattern emerging," Lettenberger said of Meyer's investigations. "The only investigations in this county that I am aware of that are dealing with this type of situation are in Whitewater and are with this investigator."

Otterbacher said Meyer and the Whitewater Police Department are not racial profiling, but are investigating cases of identity theft.

"Identity theft is one of the biggest rising crimes in the U.S.," Otterbacher said. "It's not germane to only immigrants."

Assistant District Attorney Diane Donohoo believes Petrie knowingly hired people using fake IDs.

"I see nothing that would indicate any type of harassment," by Whitewater police, Donohoo said. "Star Packaging was put on notice for a long time and asked to comply with the law. They repeatedly disregarded those warnings. What else could we do? At some point, we have to step in and take actions. We've had an ongoing problem with that organization."

Following the raid, about 75 Hispanics from the Whitewater community met at city hall to discuss the situation with customs officials and Whitewater police, Otterbacher said.

"They got a lot of their questions answered. We put a stop to the inappropriate and incorrect information that had been passed around," Otterbacher said.

The 25 in custody, all of whom are of Mexican descent, will be deported immediately or have deportation hearings in front of an immigration judge, said Gail Montenegro, ICE spokesperson.

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