Attorney argues case puts employers at risk

Whitewater business owner bound over for trial

(Published Dec. 5, 2006, 10:38 a.m.)

By Mike Heine/The Week

A Walworth County judge's decision to continue a case against a Whitewater businessman accused of conspiracy to commit identity theft will have important ramifications for businesses statewide, a defense attorney said last Thursday.

"The implications of what happened in this courtroom today are wide reaching, not only to employers in Whitewater, but to employers throughout the state," attorney Frank Lettenberger said after the preliminary hearing for Star Packaging owner Allen L. Petrie, 47. "Now, despite what employers are required to do under federal law, employers are now in a situation where if they don't verify every single document, and in essence discriminate against anybody who is Latino, they are going to be charged in this county."

Petrie is accused of knowingly hiring and employing immigrant workers who were using false or stolen identities, including several who allegedly used Social Security numbers belonging to children. Police warned him several times that he cannot continue such practices, Assistant District Attorney Diane Donohoo said.

Judge John Race's decision to bind over Petrie and continue the case on a path toward trial does not set a precedence that should cause law-abiding businesses to worry, Donohoo said.

"If other employers are knowingly employing people with false Social Security numbers or Social Security numbers belonging to other people and allowing that employment to continue, they should worry," Donohoo said. "If they are innocent people, they should have nothing to worry about. Employers cannot knowingly employ people, continue to have them on staff or continue to facilitate their pay when they know that that person is using someone else's Social Security number."

Lettenberger argued that Petrie followed all federal employment guidelines appropriately, and trusted employees gave correct identifying information. Employers are not required to verify authenticity of identifying documents if they appear legitimate. Selectively checking documents subjects employers to discrimination lawsuits, Lettenberger said.

Additionally, Petrie never told any of his employees to use fake names or Social Security numbers, nor did he give any of them false documents, Lettenberger argued.

Donohoo said Petrie's acts need not go that far to face a conspiracy charge.
Petrie allegedly allowed one employee to work under a different name because the employee was having child support payments docked from his paycheck with the first name and Social Security number he supplied to the company.

"That is an element of conspiracy," Donohoo said.

"This defendant was aware of and allowed employees to change names without the other's permission and use Social Security numbers without permission to continue their employment."

Donohoo is considering adding more charges against Petrie because there were several victims who had their identities stolen. She said she would review preliminary hearing testimony before making a decision.

Lettenberger said retired Whitewater Police Detective Larry Meyer, who led the investigation, targeted only Petrie. He questioned why the employment agencies that supplied workers to Star Packaging weren't investigated more thoroughly.

"It's interesting that there have been no other seizures, no other raids, nothing, since the investigator in this case has retired," Lettenberger said. "One would think that Mr. Petrie is being singled out based on the fact that the state has clear information about the employment agencies (not verifying identities), but the employment agencies aren't in the same jurisdiction that Mr. Petrie was in."

Lettenberger has previously accused Meyer of racial profiling.

Donohoo said the evidence is "very strong and points at Allen Petrie." She is not aware of any evidence that points to persons at staffing agencies who conspired to commit identity theft. If police refer such information, her office will consider charging others who may be connected with the case, Donohoo said.

Meanwhile, the district attorney's office issued charges of identity theft against two former Star Packaging employees, Andres Tizapa-Aparicio and Miguel Gomez. They are accused of using false names and stolen Social Security numbers.

Neither has been to court to face the charges, which were filed Nov. 21.

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