By Jessica Oswald
A ramp-up in document inspections by federal immigration officials has resulted in a $150,000 fine for Eclipse Award-winning trainer Dale Romans.
While others around the Churchill Downs backside were focused on the then-upcoming Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Romans was being summoned to the track's security office to meet with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. He was told he was being fined for technical and procedural violations in connection with a 2011 I-9 audit investigation.
Romans has filed an appeal.
Form I-9 is a government document all employers are required to use to verify the identity and employment eligibility for their employees. Any worker hired after Nov. 6, 1986, must complete this form. Exceptions apply to casual domestic workers with jobs in a private home, independent contractors, and people providing services that are employed by a contractor. But for the most part, every business and every employee is required to use this form.
"It's just a paperwork issue," Romans said. "We try to do everything by the book. I withhold taxes on every single person; we try to have all the I-9s that we can."
Over the last several years, ICE has increased I-9 audits and inspections, with more than 3,000 occurring last year. Audits can be triggered by various factors—notification by a current or former employee or even competitor, political policy agenda, or just being in an industry that commonly employs foreign nationals.
An inspection consists of 1) a notice of intent that demands the employer submit the requested I-9s; 2) an inspection of these documents to determine discrepancies or suspect documents; and 3) determination of any violations. If technical or procedural violations are found, the employer is given time to comply and correct the violations.
Romans said he never got notification of the reported violations and so missed his opportunity to correct any problems.
"Everything was going through the office for a long time and they (ICE) said that they sent three registered letters to my house, when I'm never at my house," Romans said. "There's no evidence of the registered letters coming. I don't know why they changed from my office to my house."
The fines laid against Romans relate to missing I-9s, improperly completed I-9s, and failure to respond. Penalties for substantive violations can range from $110 to $1,100 per violation, so multiple violations can quickly add up to a hefty fine.
"We appealed the fine and we're trying to resolve the issue, but it's not like it's anything illegal or like I did something to rob somebody, or that I profited from not having them. I don't have a problem with having I-9 forms," the trainer said.
Although Romans is now working with his attorney, William Velie, to appeal the ruling, he and his office staff did handle the 2011 audit on their own.
"That's where we made the biggest mistake," Romans said. "We thought we were in good shape and didn't call anybody in to help us through the audit and tried to do it by ourselves. I think if I had called somebody in that we would have gotten through it in pretty good shape. There would have been things that needed to be fixed and changed, but they would have been able to tell us that and, also, the letters wouldn't have gone to my house and nobody answered them."