Georgia fires, demotes managers in Puerto Rico driver’s license case

The Georgia Department of Driver Services has fired one manager and demoted another after an investigation found they mishandled the denial of a license to a Puerto Rican applicant.

The Georgia Department of Driver Services has fired one manager and demoted another after an investigation found they mishandled the denial of a license to a Puerto Rican applicant.

Kenneth Caban Gonzalez applied for a driver’s license in 2017 after moving from Puerto Rico to Hinesville. Instead of getting a license, he was arrested and charged with using fake Puerto Rican documents to obtain the license.

His documents later proved to be authentic. But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found the DDS continued to deny Caban Gonzalez a license long after it was apparent the case against him was flawed.

Caban Gonzalez filed a federal lawsuit last summer, and DDS Commissioner Spencer Moore asked the GBI to investigate the case. The GBI report — obtained Tuesday by the AJC — found serious problems with the DDS' treatment of Caban Gonzalez.

In response, earlier this month the DDS fired Deputy Director of Investigations Lance Taylor and demoted department Director Richard Miller to a post that does not involve law enforcement. Neither man could be reached for comment Tuesday.

The department also said it has implemented new procedures to improve oversight of the investigations of driver's license applicants. And it disavowed a Puerto Rico knowledge test used to screen applicants from the island.

Separately, earlier this year the department fired Greg Dial, an investigator involved in the Caban Gonzalez case, because he made racist comments, documents obtained by the AJC show. The GBI report shows that the investigator who handled Caban Gonzalez’s case believed Dial pressured him to press charges against minorities. Dial could not be reached for comment.

In a statement issued to the AJC on Tuesday, Moore praised the GBI investigation and said the DDS’ policy “is and has always been to treat all customers with dignity and respect.”

Jorge Luis Vasquez Jr., associate counsel with Latino Justice, which represents Caban Gonzalez, said the firing and demotion of employees show the DDS is taking the case seriously.

“Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens,” Vasquez said. “They should be treated the same way as other U.S. citizens.”

The problems highlighted by Caban Gonzalez’s case stem from the DDS’ efforts to crack down on the use of fake Puerto Rican birth certificates to obtain driver’s licenses. Such fraud has been a persistent problem.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens — making their birth certificates a hot commodity for people looking to immigrate to this country illegally. That’s led to heightened scrutiny of island documents.

But last summer the AJC reported the DDS went to unusual lengths to curtail such fraud. Among other things, department investigators used a Puerto Rico knowledge test to screen driver's license applicants from the island.

But the test was outdated, included wrong answers and used questions so obscure that one Puerto Rico expert told the newspaper he couldn’t answer all of them.

Such zeal led investigators to scrutinize Caban Gonzalez, who was arrested in November 2017 and charged with fraud and making false statements. Investigators believed his Puerto Rican birth certificate was fake.

But just two weeks after Caban Gonzalez’s arrest, DDS investigators learned the federal guidance they used to determine his birth certificate was fake was outdated and could not be used to authenticate birth certificates.

That put the justification for his arrest in doubt. But the DDS pressed ahead with the investigation, asking the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to authenticate Caban Gonzalez's Puerto Rican birth certificate and driver's license. Taylor, the deputy director of investigations, told the GBI he could not recall forwarding such documents to Homeland Security in the past.

In July 2018, Homeland Security determined that Caban Gonzalez’s documents were authentic. But DDS investigators still resisted dropping the charges against him. They finally did in March — 15 months after Caban Gonzalez was arrested.

The GBI report concluded the department “failed to follow up and complete the investigation” of Caban Gonzalez. Based on that report, the DDS fired Taylor and demoted Miller on Dec. 4, records show.

Deprived of a driver’s license, Caban Gonzalez told the AJC in September that he found it hard to find and keep a job. He said his life has been on hold.

“I lost everything,” he told the newspaper. “I lost a lot of money.”

In the federal lawsuit, Caban Gonzalez accused the DDS of illegally discriminating against citizens of Puerto Rican descent.

Vasquez, the Latino Justice attorney, said the case “is really just about fairness.”

The DDS said it has taken steps to improve oversight of investigations of driver’s license applicants. Spokeswoman Shevondah Leslie said supervisors will review each case at least monthly “to ensure we are handling it appropriately.”

In its statement to the newspaper, the department also promised to provide timely updates to customers awaiting a license and to notify them of their right to appeal a DDS decision.

Moore said the Puerto Rico interview guide “should never be used by DDS staff, under any circumstances, as it is not an authorized DDS document.”

“We will continue to make efforts to enhance DDS policy and communication for all investigations while preventing any potential fraud or breach of homeland security,” Moore said.

Separately, the agency fired Dial in January, citing comments he reportedly made during a Taser training session. Documents obtained by the AJC allege that the comments involved a “Middle Eastern police chief.”

When agency officials interviewed Dial about the allegation, he said Hispanic and Korean people are not easily affected by pepper spray “because they have a tolerance from eating spicy foods.”

It was the second time Dial had been punished for making such comments. In 2015 he was suspended for three days after the AJC reported he posted a sticker in his work cubicle claiming to be a "hunting permit" for illegal immigrants.

Dial supervised James Woo, the investigator who handled Caban Gonzalez’s case. It was Woo who filed the complaint about Dial’s comments during the Taser training.

In an interview with the GBI, Woo said he reported Dial’s comments because “he felt that Supervisor Dial was influencing his cases,” the report said. “Investigator Woo felt that Supervisor Dial was influencing him to take charges on people of color.”

“Mr. Dial no longer works for DDS,” Leslie, the department spokesman, said in an email. “The assertion made (about Dial) is not in line with our mission or our commissioner’s expectations.”

Leslie noted the department sees more than 3.5 million customers annually. “We do not have any record of people of color being treated unfairly,” she said.

Our reporting

In July, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Georgia goes to unusual lengths to curtail fraud involving Puerto Rican birth certificates — lengths that left it vulnerable to civil rights complaints. In September, the AJC reported that Department of Driver Services investigators declined to drop fraud charges against Puerto Rico native Kenneth Caban Gonzalez long after it was apparent the case against him was flawed. This week the newspaper obtained a GBI investigation report on the case that led the DDS to fire one manager and demote another.

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