State employees might have to pass random drug tests, under rules being considered by state officials as a way to thwart identity theft.

Jeff Herring, executive director of the Utah Department of Human Resource Management, and Kirk Torgensen, chief deputy in the Attorney General's Office, told a legislative committee on Wednesday that the proposed testing would apply to state workers who have access to Utahns' "highly sensitive" personal data.

Data indicate that some methamphetamine abusers are using identity theft to get money for their drug purchases, while meth distributors are using identity theft to generate income to benefit their drug trafficking, he said.

"This electronic identity-theft crime is relatively new, so we're entering a new era of how we have to manage our work force, and I think the time is right to take a look at doing some of this," Herring told the Workforce Services and Community and Economic Development Interim Committee.

Herring said the testing would be purely random, and no agency would determine which staffers are tested. Everyone — from agency executive directors to data-entry personnel — would be subject to the tests, he said. But Torgensen cautioned that not all state workers would be involved — only those with access to Utahns' personal information, such as financial assets, bank accounts, Social Security numbers, birth dates, household composition, home addresses and medical histories.

"All the access that we have, it's kind of like keys out there," he said. "If you've got date of birth, home address, Social Security, you've got the ability to do major damage."

In April, federal officials said a former Department of Workforce Services employee who took applications from people seeking food stamps and other welfare aid worked with three other people to steal the identity of Utah residents and charge tens of thousands of dollars in purchases. Laura Bustamante, 34, of Midvale, was among those charged in the scheme.

The department said at the time that it was the first instance of identity theft by an employee in the department's history, and the legislative committee's co-chairman, Rep. Steve Mascaro, R-West Jordan, said Wednesday that he believed it was an "isolated" incident.

But comments by Herring and Torgensen made the issue appear to be more widespread.

"More and more, we're seeing compromises of that access of data for certain things like drug use, to fund the drug use issue," Herring said. "The issue is not, 'Do we have a problem.' We have a problem. What we're trying to do is take a look at, as an executive branch, what are some tools that we can put in our toolbox to try to address this issue that we have."

Random drug tests would be a tool to address some of the problem, he said. "Is it going to catch all of it? Is it going to wipe out all of it? No, but it's a tool that we can use."

Torgensen said "numerous" cases of drug-related identity theft have been investigated in Utah. "My office has been involved in investigating cases in which employees have realized there's a real market for this information and that you can take it, you can sell it, you can give it to people for nefarious purposes," he said.

Herring said that merely having a random drug-test policy likely will discourage some troublemakers from even considering working for state government.

In formulating the rules, officials are trying to protect employees' Fourth-Amendment right of protection from unreasonable search and seizure, he said. Testing already can occur for "reasonable suspicion" of a crime.

Torgensen said he believes random drug testing can be instituted in a way that would be upheld in a court challenge.

The devastation of being victimized by identity theft is difficult to describe, he said, noting that victims, on average, spend about 600 hours to clean up their records.

"It is a nightmare, so anything we can do to sort of try to protect people from allowing that to happen is laudable," he said, calling the handling of personal information "a sacred trust" for government. "I can't imagine a more sacred trust to keep it safe, and I shudder to think that the state of Utah could ever be part of a lackadaisical approach that would allow this stuff to be compromised."

E-mail: [email protected]