SALT LAKE CITY — At least two employees of the Utah Department of Workforce Services took information from its databases to help compile a list of 1,300 supposedly illegal immigrants, Gov. Gary Herbert said Friday.
"This investigation is not over," Herbert said at a news conference. He said the names of state employees are being turned over to Attorney General Mark Shurtleff for prosecution.
As many as five more department employees may be involved in what the governor described as a "small rogue group" that collected and distributed confidential information out of frustration over illegal immigration policy. They were identified through an internal investigation Herbert ordered after the list became public Tuesday.
The head of the department, Kristen Cox, said the two identified employees have been placed on administrative leave. She declined to disclose whether they will continue to receive their pay and benefits.
"The people we have identified certainly have some strong political opinions and seem to be frustrated with some of the issues around immigration," Cox said. "They understand what the rules are. They understand the protocol. If they want to go rogue, they need to quit the department."
Later, department spokesman Dave Lewis added, "There are additional people we are looking at. There could be two, there could be five. It's a small group. They are all DWS employees."
Lewis said the additional employees under investigation have not yet been put on administrative leave. He said they may or may not face action, "depending on what we find" in the continuing investigation. As many as 2,000 department employees have access to the databases, Lewis said.
Cox said there was no breach of the database, but rather a compilation of information. The effort apparently took some time. The governor said, "These people involved have been very patient; they've been very methodical; they've been very deliberate."
Herbert said there are only two databases where information could be accessed about illegal immigrants: a list of those who are receiving prenatal care through Medicaid, and those whose children are U.S. citizens and qualify for food stamps, health care and other assistance.
The governor said releasing information from the databases is a violation of federal law, which prohibits the state from turning over the list or any other information in the databases to U.S. immigration authorities. "That's the federal law, and we have to honor it," he said.
Herbert had been scheduled to head to Colorado Friday for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association in Aspen, but he said his flight was canceled.
He had been criticized for not responding sooner to the list. Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, his Democratic opponent in November's special gubernatorial election, had said Herbert should have condemned the list.
Herbert complained Friday about the politicizing of the issue but made a point of saying, "Using this mechanism to make a political point — I'm talking about the list — is very inappropriate, and I condemn its use."
The governor would not comment on the political implications of his news conference. His roundtable discussion on illegal immigration is scheduled for Tuesday.
During a conference call Friday, Shurtleff said that once information from the governor's investigation is turned over to his office, which is expected to happen by Monday, his staff will begin a formal investigation with the U.S. attorney's office.
"We'll do that jointly with the U.S. attorney's office, because from what we're hearing, mostly likely federal and state privacy laws may have been violated. We're talking serious crimes that could rise to a felony," he said.
Shurtleff said because the list included the due dates of several pregnant women, those responsible may have violated federal health privacy laws, which would be a felony, not just a misdemeanor, as some violations of state databases could be.
Shurtleff added that his investigation will not necessarily be limited to state employees. "If others were involved in potential violations of law beyond state employees, certainly we're going to be looking at that, as well."
But Shurtleff said his office does not plan to do anything with the supposed "illegal immigrants" on the list. He said he will seek, as part of immigration reform, the power to go after companies that continually report employee Social Security numbers that are bogus or belong to someone else, even after the state has warned them the numbers are fake.
"As the attorney general of Utah, we condemn in the strongest possible terms the generation and dissemination of this list," Shurtleff said during the conference call to national reporters. "I want to make it very clear that is not the way we do things in Utah."
He said as people debate immigration reform, "we need to do it in a way that is not through lists, that is (not) through hate mongering, through political rhetoric, through threats, through outright and implied racism. That's not how we do things, and we condemn it."
Shurtleff said he hopes all sides will condemn the list and "put the hatred, the accusations aside and work toward comprehensive, workable reform."
Utah Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen said in a statement Friday that the party supported Herbert's request for an investigation into the origination and release of the list.
"The unlawful release of private information to the public is unconscionable under any circumstances and is not to be tolerated," Hansen said in the statement. "Immigration is an emotional and much-debated issue, not only here in Utah, but nationwide. However, (flouting) the law because of frustration with the law is no excuse for illegal behavior."
"The appropriate method of addressing immigration issues is through existing law or through the legislative process. Those parties who participated in the gathering and distribution of the private information of individuals should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said that the dissemination of confidential information contained in the list was "highly disturbing." She also said the U.S. Department of Labor would assist the state in the investigation, if necessary.
"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," Holis said in a statement.
The list was distributed to news media and law enforcement agencies by an anonymous group calling for deportation of people it included. The list contained names, birth dates, addresses, phone numbers, names of children and even the due dates of several pregnant women. It contained names from all over the state.
Within hours of the first stories about "the list," Hispanic leaders called for Herbert to investigate whether it came from state sources — and he did so quickly.
Latino activist Tony Yapias praised the governor's efforts. "He put this to an end," Yapias said after attending Herbert's news conference. "I appreciated his leadership." Yapias said the incident has been a good lesson for government employees on "how to keep your own personal political views separate from your job."
But Yapias questioned whether the employees acted on their own. "I don't think a state employee, on their own, is going to say, 'Check this out. Let's get this out,' " he said, noting the letter that accompanied the list used the same language as anti-illegal-immigrant groups.
Eli Cawley, chairman of the Utah Minutemen Project, issued a news release on Friday defending the workers who released the data, saying they are patriots and whistle-blowers who deserve praise and not criminal charges.
"Those who take their obligation to protect Utah citizens seriously and want to repel the invaders are great patriots," Cawley said.
Other Utahns participated in the Friday conference call to national media with Shurtleff, to deliver a message that "the list" does not represent the views of most of the state's residents.
The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Utah, said, "The people of Utah are a gracious people and a good people and a moral people. This certainly does not reflect at all what the people of Utah are about."
Paul Mero, president of the conservative Sutherland Institute, said, "This list in Utah is reprehensible. It makes me sick to my stomach. … Hopefully this list will backfire on those who decided to do this and become a tipping point on this issue that allows reason and understanding and logic to take over."
Late Friday morning at the Mexican Consulate in downtown Salt Lake, about two dozen people waited, and some of them were seeking advice stemming from concerns over the list.
One couple, with their young son, were waiting to talk to a consular representative and said while they were not named in the document, they were neighbors of someone who was. Declining to identify himself or his immigration status, the father of the boy said everyone he knows was affected by the list.
"Our family, our friends, the people we know — all of them are worried about what this means," he said.
Another man waiting for help at the consulate, who asked that his name not be published, said he was visiting Utah on a legal tourist visa but now plans on cutting his trip short.
"I come here every year about this time to visit friends," he said. "But this time, there's nothing good here. … Everyone is scared."
A consulate official said she was not authorized to talk about what kind of advice was being offered to Mexican citizens who were raising concerns about the list of names.
Contributing: Arthur Raymond
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company