ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia agency in charge of issuing driver’s licenses and state identification cards fired a manager and demoted another this month after an investigation found they mishandled the cases of two Puerto Rican applicants.
The two officials caused “irreparable damage to the image and credibility” of the Department of Driver Services and the state, according to an agency statement
The investigation came after one of the applicants, Kenneth Caban Gonzalez, filed a lawsuit in July alleging that the department discriminated against Puerto Ricans by treating them differently from other U.S. citizen applicants. Caban Gonzalez, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to southeast Georgia in 2017, was accused of providing false documents and arrested after he applied for a driver’s license.
Department Commissioner Spencer Moore asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to take a close look at Caban Gonzalez’s case. The GBI found “deficiencies in investigative procedures” and a failure to follow department protocol in the investigations into Caban Gonzalez and another man.
As a result of those findings, Moore on Dec. 4 fired Lance Taylor, deputy director of the department’s office of investigations, and demoted Richard Miller, director of the office of investigations. Taylor and Miller couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
The department has also taken steps to improve the transparency and oversight of investigations, according to an emailed statement.
“The handling of this case does not represent our agency; we will continue to serve our customers with integrity, dignity, and respect,” the statement says.
“We appreciate DDS taking these abuses seriously, and are hopeful that discrimination against Puerto Rican applicants will become a thing of the past in Georgia,” said Atteeyah Hollie, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the lawsuit along with LatinoJustice PRLDEF.
The lawsuit names Moore and the investigator who handled Caban Gonzalez’s case. According to a court filing Tuesday, the “parties have made significant progress and believe they are nearing a potential resolution of this matter.”
Federal agencies have issued alerts about fake or stolen Puerto Rican birth certificates, and the Department of Driver Services had a practice of submitting documents provided by Puerto Rican applicants to its office of investigative services to verify their legitimacy. Many of the department’s investigators used a “Puerto Rican Interview Guide” questionnaire to verify that a person was from Puerto Rico.
Caban Gonzalez’s lawsuit raised concerns about that questionnaire, as well as the fact that Puerto Ricans aren’t entitled to the same driver’s license reciprocity as other U.S. citizens and the flagging of their documents for fraud review.
The Department of Driver Services quit submitting Puerto Ricans’ documents to the office of investigative services in December 2017, with a bulletin saying documents should only be submitted if fraud was suspected, according to the GBI report. The changes made following the GBI investigation include prohibiting the use of the interview guide, which was found to be out of date and wasn’t an official department document.
The department also said it will give customers timely updates and information on applicable appeal rights. Investigators also will receive additional training.
Caban Gonzalez applied for a driver’s license in October 2017. A Department of Driver Services investigator sent documents belonging to him and another Puerto Rican man to his supervisor, who said they didn’t appear to be legitimate, the GBI report said. In November 2017, the investigator got warrants for the two men, who were arrested when they went to retrieve their documents.
The department learned two weeks later that the verification process it used for Puerto Rican documents was no longer valid. And even after federal authorities confirmed in summer 2018 that the men’s documents were legitimate, Miller and Taylor didn’t want to void the warrants against them, the GBI report says. The charges against Caban Gonzalez weren’t dismissed until March of this year and the charges against the other man were dismissed in July.
Additionally, the GBI report says, the investigator handling the two men’s cases reported his supervisor, Greg Dial, to human resources because he believed Dial had made racial comments and was influencing him to take out charges against people of color. After an internal investigation, Dial was fired, the GBI report says. Dial couldn’t be reached for comment.
The findings of the report and the disciplinary actions were first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.