ATLANTA (AP) -- A recent audit found that Georgia's Department of Agriculture failed to use a federal database to determine whether new employees were eligible to work there, a requirement since 2007 under a state law targeting illegal immigration.
When auditors reviewed a sample of the department's hiring documents for the year ending in June 2012, they realized the agency was not immediately using the E-Verify database to confirm the eligibility of new hires.
Former Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a law that required all public employers to start suing the E-Verify system in mid-2007. However, the Agriculture Department did not start using the system until April 2012, according to Steve Blando, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The requirement to use the database initially took effect while Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, a Democrat, was in office. He was succeeded in 2011 by current Commissioner Gary Black, a Republican. It's a potentially embarrassing issue for Black's office because he regulates Georgia farmers, including many who are deeply unhappy about a 2011 law that went even further in an attempt to stem illegal immigration. The law forced many farmers and other private employers to use the E-Verify database to check the work eligibility of new hires, including the migrant laborers who harvest labor-intensive crops.
Black's office was warned of the problem in an audit released in November 2011. While officials thought the personnel office had started using the electronic database, it had not, Black spokeswoman Mary Kathryn Yearta said. An employee in the personnel office has been reprimanded over the lapse, she said.
She described the problem as one of several inherited from the Irvin administration.
"It's a lame excuse, but there were so many problems down here, there were so many things that needed improving, it was not brought to our attention," she said.
Anti-illegal immigration activist D.A. King noted that Black was in office for more than a year before the problem was fixed.
"I certainly would have hoped he would have tried harder to protect jobs for Georgia taxpayers," King said.
Black supported making E-Verify use mandatory when he testified before Congress last year. He spoke in support of changes to a federal program that provides special visas for migrant farm laborers.
"Legal service reform, housing vouchers, expanded eligibility, and transferring authority to USDA are ideas that warrant immediate consideration," Black said, according to his prepared testimony. "These proposals and others must not compete with, but should be complimented by mandatory e-verify, in my view."
Associated Press writer Kate Brumback contributed to this report. Follow Ray Henry at http://twitter.com/rhenryAP.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.