Colorado Department of Labor and Employment Executive Director Don Mares insisted his office did nothing improper when it decided in January of last year to suspend a particular software program designed to flag illegal immigrants trying to obtain unemployment benefits.
That decision was the focus of an investigative report by Todd Shepherd with the Independence Institute.
"We would not have temporarily suspended this program if we didn't feel like we had other systems in place that were going to adequately look for folks who shouldn't get benefits because of their legal status," Mares said Thursday.
But State Senator Shawn Mitchell (R-Broomfield) was unsure of CDLE's intentions.
"It looks really bad," he said. "It appears in black and white that people were breaking the law and knew they were breaking the law."
At issue is a bill passed by the state legislature in 2006. HB-1023 was designed to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining certain forms of government aid. It required state agencies to try to verify status of applicants before handing over something like an unemployment check.
In January of last year CDLE was swamped with a near-record amount of unemployment claims.
"People couldn't get through the system, by phone or otherwise," Mares said. A particular software system designed to help CDLE comply with HB-1023 was, according to Mares, part of the problem.
"It was just holding everything up," he said.
So that system was temporarily suspended, although the "temporary" part of that has now lasted a year and a half.
Shepherd's investigation revealed that there were at least some employees in CDLE that were concerned about the suspension of the program.
"Is this legal?" one employee asked in an inter-office email obtained by Shepherd. "This ain't so hard to do, but we will be effectively disabling the legislatures HB1023," said another email.
"At the very least (the emails) show that there were serious concerns about whether or not the intent of the legislature was being followed," Shepherd said.
Still Mares believes his office did nothing wrong and offers up the assertion that his office flagged close to 900 illegal immigrants during the first nine months of 2009 as evidence of that.
"We felt that overall our system had good checks. Does that mean we aren't always looking at how we can do this better?" he added. "Yes, we are looking to do better."
Yet it's quite clear that many politicians are fuming.
"I think they were ignoring the law and likely broke the law many, many times," Sen. Mitchell said. Sen. Mitchell and a number of other Republican politicians publically called for an audit of CDLE to determine if any illegal immigrants obtained unemployment benefits because of the change in policy.
It's still not clear if any illegal immigrants obtained benefits improperly however. As one Republican politician said on KHOW's Caplis and Silverman Show on Thursday, "We don't know if it was one, 100, or 5,000."
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