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Lawyer: Whitewater business owner put in no-win situation

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published August 25, 2006, 1:08 p.m.)

Allen Petrie had no good choices when Whitewater police started investigating his business, Star Packaging, his defense attorney says.

Whitewater investigator Larry Meyer told Petrie, 47, to get rid of employees using somebody else's Social Security number, according to a search warrant affidavit.

But Petrie's attorney Frank Lettenberger said that would have violated Social Security Administration rules, which don't allow punitive action against an employee whose name and number do not match.

"Larry (Meyer) walks into a place of employment and says, 'You fire your Mexican guys.' That's against the law," Lettenberger said. "The federal government says not to fire them. What's my guy supposed to do, fire the Mexicans and get sued?"

Police and prosecutors say Petrie was warned about hiring illegal immigrants using fake IDs.

Dan Gronemus, district manager for the Janesville Social Security office, doesn't think a business has an obligation to verify Social Security numbers, but it would make sense for them to do so.

"It would be very prudent to verify it to ensure that what they have is correct," Gronemus said. "There are so many false documents out there that look valid. It's hard for an employer to say this one is valid and this isn't a valid one."

A company cannot verify someone's name and Social Security number until after they are offered a job, according to information from the Social Security Administration Web site. And an employer cannot take punitive action against an employee whose name and number do not match.

A mismatch does not imply the employee intentionally provided incorrect information, nor does it make a statement about the employee's immigration status.

A mismatch cannot be the basis for taking any adverse action against the employee. Doing so could subject the employer to anti-discrimination or labor law sanctions, according to the Web site.

Attorney Mark Olm, who is representing Star Packaging, said the business followed proper hiring protocols. He said verification of Social Security numbers is not a requirement when IDs are shown.

"(Police) asked (Petrie) to start verifying Social Security numbers. I don't know of anything in the law that requires him to do that, but he did attempt to do that thereafter," Olm said.

"I don't know of any authority (police) have to ask him to terminate anyone. The law says you sign an I-9 (employment) form and present two forms of IDs, including a Social Security number."

He called Meyer's alleged request to fire Mexican employees blatant and discriminatory.

Both attorneys say the Whitewater police have been targeting Mexican immigrants.

"I'd understand if they were investigating people who were out robbing others, but these (employees) are doing a job you can't get white people to do," Lettenberger said. "What are employers up there (in Whitewater) to do now? Just hire white people?"

Olm received calls from other business clients who "ask an awful lot of questions about this and wonder if someone is going to come to their place of business and take them to jail."

"Employers who employ people who sign I-9 forms are nervous," he added.

Meyer and the Whitewater Police Department are the subjects of an open federal civil suit filed by another Whitewater business owner, Steve Cvicker.

Among other allegations, Cvicker claims Meyer harassed him to the point hurting his business, Whitewater Rock and Mulch, a landscaping supply company.

"Meyer verbally intimidated all of Cvicker's employees of Mexican descent, telling them that they should not work there anymore and should 'spread the word' through their community that none of them should seek or take employment at Cvicker's business," according to the complaint.

Meyer denied that allegation in his response to the complaint.

Lettenberger also is representing a Mexican woman who walked into the Star Packaging investigation.

Meyer and Elkhorn police officers conducted a search at an Elkhorn employment agency seeking records of workers sent to Star Packaging.

The woman, who never worked at Star Packaging, came into the agency the day of the search to collect a paycheck, according to a motion filed by Lettenberger. While there, an Elkhorn detective asked her for identification and a Social Security card.

"That simply because a person is of Mexican or Latino descent, it does not give any officer the ability to demand from them a Social Security card," Lettenberger's motion reads. "That being of Mexican or Latino decent is not a crime in the state of Wisconsin, nor does it give police reasonable suspicion to detain a person."

"I think it's blatant profiling," Lettenberger told The Week.

The Whitewater police say the seven-month investigation of Star Packaging is for identity theft. It is not targeting Hispanics, authorities say.

Ex-Whitewater Police Chief James Coan, who recently left the department for another position in a different city, said the investigation was an inquiry into questionable business practices. Petrie told employees to use false names and Social Security numbers, according to the criminal complaint.

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