Published Sunday May 26, 2002 Lawsuit spotlights ID issues BY PAUL HAMMEL WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER HASTINGS, Neb. - Robert Kirk, a former state driver's license examiner, said it was easy to pick out bogus identification papers used to obtain a Nebraska license. Some Social Security cards failed a special "light test" used to detect false documents, and others were clearly copies that he had seen before. Robert Kirk Several applicants couldn't match the birth dates or other facts on the documents, Kirk said, or their signatures didn't match up. Still others, he said, admitted that they had bought ID papers from someone in a park in nearby Grand Island, paying as little as $40 for a copy of someone else's Social Security card. But instead of winning praise for his scrutiny, Kirk was fired from his $24,000-a-year state job in July 2000. Memos written by Kirk's supervisors in the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles make it clear they thought Kirk targeted Hispanics for harsher scrutiny and had disregarded instructions to back off. The memos, obtained from Kirk's attorney, show he was chastised for describing those he had caught as "illegals" and "foreign dignitaries." He also was the subject of an inquiry by the Nebraska Mexican American Commission. Now a court has been asked to decide who overstepped their bounds. Kirk, 59, filed suit in February, asking for $32,800 in lost wages and job-retraining costs. He is now an over-the-road truck driver. His suit touches on a long-standing debate over how to check the identification of possibly undocumented workers without mistreating them. The debate has taken on new urgency since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. One question is whether all states should ask driver's license applicants whether they are in the United States legally, not just whether they have an address in that state. Last month, Iowa examiners began asking applicants whether they are U.S. citizens or otherwise in the country legally. Nebraska's do not ask such questions. There can be a fine line, officials said, between scrutinizing potentially false documents and mistreating people of color. Some five years ago, complaints in Nebraska led to sensitivity training for all 90 state examiners, said Cecilia Huerta, director of the Nebraska Mexican American Commission. That, she said, brought some improvement. To obtain a Nebraska driver's license, an applicant must show one piece of U.S.-based identification that shows name and date of birth, such as a certified birth certificate or a driver's license from another state. The applicant also must provide a Social Security number, which is checked for authenticity. Proof of residency in Nebraska is not required, although examiners can deny a license if they know an address is false. In Iowa, examiners require a certified birth certificate and a Social Security card to obtain a driver's license. Unlike Nebraska, Iowa formed a special law enforcement unit to probe fraud cases involving driver's licenses, motor-vehicle titles and auto dealers. Four of the 22 investigators focus specifically on driver's-license fraud and identify theft. Similar certified law enforcement investigators are sorely needed in Nebraska, said Sara O'Rourke, administrator of driver licensing for the Department of Motor Vehicles. "Every day, we see more fraud." Nebraska has seen its share of fraud in the past two years. Two Nebraska examiners - one in Sarpy County and the other in Madison County - were convicted of selling licenses under the table to undocumented workers. The INS broke up rings that sold stolen Puerto Rican birth certificates in Grand Island and transported vanloads of undocumented workers to motor-vehicle stations to obtain licenses using bogus documents. Paul Steier, an Iowa fraud investigator, said that detecting bogus documents is complicated. For instance, there are 14,000 versions of birth certificates in circulation. Kirk, who worked 31/2 years for the Motor Vehicles Department, acknowledged that he argued with his supervisors about his checking of documents and an office staffing shortage. But, he said, he couldn't ignore the illegal papers. Kirk estimated that 70 percent of the Hispanic workers who came to his office carried fake IDs. He said he caused more than 100 false IDs to be taken out of circulation. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out," Kirk said. Kirk says he was fired for just doing his job by asking questions when he saw suspicious documents. He denies that he targeted anyone. He alleges that his supervisors ordered him to stop checking the validity of documents. "You will not require proof of residency from applicants unless you know the address does not exist," said one memo from supervisor Delbert Peterson. Kirk alleges the state wanted to make it easy for undocumented immigrants to obtain ID cards and driver's licenses so they could work at local meatpacking plants and factories. "What they were doing was basically aiding and abetting illegals," Kirk said. State officials deny this. They say checking the authenticity of identification papers is a key requirement of the job, but so is treating everyone equally. Officials with the Department of Motor Vehicles declined to specifically address Kirk's firing, citing confidentiality standards for personnel issues. However, O'Rourke did say this: "You can't key on a certain race and expect more from them than anyone else. That's the issue here." Memos indicate Kirk was the subject of numerous complaints from Hispanic and non-Hispanic customers. Doug Ruhter, an Adams County deputy sheriff who worked frequently with Kirk, said Kirk was wrongly dismissed. "It's not his fault that 95 percent of the bad documents came from Hispanics," Ruhter said. Whether the lawsuit ever gets heard in court is unclear. The state is asking a judge to dismiss it on technical grounds. For his part, Kirk admits that he's bitter. He said his house was vandalized, people have flashed obscene gestures and someone has tried to run him over. He suspects it was because he was tough on checking IDs. He doesn't want his job back, he said. "I just want some compensation for what they've done to me."