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AZ: County supervisors face federal civil-rights investigation for failing to provide interpreters at public meetings for persons of limited English proficiency.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has been under federal investigation since March for possible civil-rights violations that involve failing to provide interpreters at public meetings for persons of limited English proficiency.

The investigation came to light Tuesday when County Attorney Andrew Thomas published a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice offering cooperation and claiming that his office was only informed of the investigation last week, when county officials approached it for legal help.

County officials deny any sort of investigation cover-up and said they've been working with his office for some time.

The issue dates to December 2007, when a community activist named Silverio Garcia tried to address the board in Spanish at a public meeting. Garcia claimed that both Supervisors Andrew Kunasek and Max Wilson made remarks that he should speak English.

Garcia filed a complaint with the Department of Justice. Garcia also filed complaints against the Sheriff's Office, and the DOJ responded by saying it would investigate both agencies.

Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 says that no person should be discriminated against on the grounds of race or national origin under any program receiving federal aid, which would include county governments.

Most local governments in the Valley will make interpreters available to non-English-speakers on request. The county's letter to the DOJ says it intends to do the same.

But the complaints have been ongoing, especially in recent meetings that address the Sheriff's Office immigration policies. Speakers are allowed two minutes of time.

"People couldn't express themselves during public comment because they had to translate, and the chairman of the board didn't give extra time to do a translation," activist Raquel Terán said. "One minute of speaking in Spanish is another taken up translating in English. They (Spanish-speakers) don't get equal time during the public comment."

Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox said she believes the county must make Spanish-language interpreters more accessible during public meetings.

"You have to provide equal access, you have to come up with an interpreter should the need arise," she said. "We really need to come up with a remedy."

In Thomas' letter to the DOJ, he said that one of the supervisors had gone so far as to chastise someone for speaking Spanish and said county officials tried to cover up news of the investigation.

"Unfortunately, the board and its employees improperly withheld this letter, and the fact that the DOJ was investigating the board, from our office and from the public during the preceding five months, while at the same time delaying response to your requests for information," Thomas wrote.

Thomas also asked that the DOJ officials "broaden their probe beyond this civil-rights complaint to include a more general investigation of the board and county management."

Thomas is tangled in extensive litigation with the supervisors, among other things, over the board's creation of its own civil-litigation department.

The head of that department, Wade Swanson, however, said that his office has in fact been working with the County Attorney's Office and with the Department of Justice for months and has drafted an as-yet unsent response to the federal government, which informs the DOJ that Thomas' office will take over responsibility for the matter.

"This idea that this was somehow withheld is a lie, and this idea that it was somehow held from the public is a lie," Swanson said.

"It's demonstrably false that his office just became aware of it - he may have just become aware of it - but his office has been involved in it. They have been aware of this for months."

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