A federal grand jury has indicted two clerical workers for allegedly destroying thousands of Immigration and Naturalization Service documents in an effort to eliminate mounting paperwork.
Dawn Randall, 24, of San Clemente and Leonel Salazar, 34, of Laguna Niguel were contract employees working in the file room of the INS California Service Center in Laguna Niguel when agency officials grew suspicious about late-night document shredding at the center, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
Each was charged Wednesday with conspiracy and five counts of willfully destroying documents, and must appear in court Monday in Santa Ana. If convicted, they each face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
The INS service center receives all mail from Arizona, California, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam. As file room manager, Randall oversaw supervisors and clerks who processed thousands of visa applications, passports, birth and marriage certificates and other papers.
According to prosecutors, in early 2002 Randall ordered Salazar, a supervisor, to begin shredding unprocessed paperwork after an inventory revealed a processing backlog of about 90,000 documents.
By March 2002, a month later, the backlog was reported to be zero. At that point, prosecutors say, Randall told Salazar and others to continue shredding incoming documents to keep the backlog at zero. The shredding reportedly stopped in April, when INS officials discovered two file room clerks shredding documents during an evening shift.
Prosecutors estimated that tens of thousands of documents were destroyed.
"We'll never know for sure," said Asst. U.S. Atty. Greg Staples. "All of this stuff has been destroyed. There's just no trace of it."
Randall's attorney, Joseph Cavallo, said his client did nothing wrong. He said she was being made a scapegoat in a dispute between the INS and the outside contracting firms that employed her and processed documents for the INS. Cavallo described Randall as an energetic employee who worked her way up from clerk to manager in rapid order.
"She's an ethical, hard-working young girl and she's been caught up in a corporate whirlwind," Cavallo said. "She did not willfully destroy records, nor did she instruct anyone else to destroy records."
The INS contracts with JHM Research and Development Inc. of Maryland to handle document management services nationwide. JHM in turn contracts with two other firms, Datatrac Information Services, of Texas, and SEI Technology Inc. of Virginia, to do work in the Laguna Niguel center. Staples said the firms had cooperated with the investigation and were not charged with wrongdoing.
Neither Salazar nor his lawyer could be reached for comment Thursday.