Groups want Blunt chief fired for remark about Mexican workers

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Some Hispanic groups called for Gov. Matt Blunt's chief of staff to be fired Monday for a remark they say was offensive but that the governor's office says has been misinterpreted.

Blunt's chief of staff, Ed Martin, remains on the job. But a state employee offended by his comment has resigned.

At issue is a remark Martin made during an Aug. 17 meeting of the Missouri Housing Development Commission while Martin was representing Blunt as a member of the board.

Commission members were questioning an attorney for developer Pete Hennessey, whose company has been accused by O'Fallon city officials of hiring a subcontractor using illegal immigrants for a taxpayer-subsidized housing project. Hennessey has denied the assertion.

Hennessey's attorney was saying that an electronic means of verifying the workers' legal status wasn't available at the time, when Martin cut him off and chastised him for trying to debate the availability of the computer program.

"I'll tell you what's available, is every frigging developer can figure out who is illegal, and when he says -- like he told them -- there's a bunch of Mexicans out there, I guess some of them are probably not legal," Martin said, according to a transcript of the meeting.

Jim Torres, the commission's secretary and legislative liaison, sent Blunt a letter Wednesday taking offense at Martin's "inflammatory comment" and asking the governor to order Martin to publicly apologize at the commission's September meeting. Torres said he was the grandson of Mexican immigrants and noted his uncles and father all served in the U.S. military.

"I am extremely proud of my Mexican heritage, culture and especially my family and I will not let anyone demean or degrade it, least of all Mr. Martin," Torres wrote.

Torres submitted his resignation the next day -- the same day that Martin sent his boss, housing commission director Pete Ramsel, a letter describing Torres' letter as "both unprofessional and inappropriate."

Martin wrote that his remark was directed only at the O'Fallon development, "where illegal workers from Mexico were at issue."

"I was paraphrasing what I had been told there and acknowledge I could have been clearer," Martin wrote. "I certainly meant no harm to Jim or anyone else."

But some Hispanic leaders aren't satisfied with that explanation.

Nothing short of Martin's firing and an apology from the governor's office will suffice, said Rita Valenciano, president of the Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, who was joined by other Kansas City-area Hispanic leaders at a news conference.

"This statement made by the chief of staff and the governor's office in 2007 makes it one of the most profiling and racist statements to come from the governor's office in recent history in Missouri," she said.

Valenciano drew little distinction between whether Martin was speaking on his own behalf or paraphrasing a developer at the hearing. She said that even if Martin were paraphrasing the comments of someone else, he should have gone out of his way to distance himself and Blunt's office from suggesting that some Mexicans at work sites are likely to be illegal immigrants.

Torres is on paid vacation pending his official resignation on Sept. 20. On Tuesday, he declined to say whether he resigned as a result of Martin's remark.

"I find it ironic that Mr. Martin would characterize my comments in my letter of Sept. 5, 2007, as `both unprofessional and inappropriate,"' Torres said. "I think anyone in attendance at the Aug. 27, 2007, commission meeting would find his inflammatory comments and behavior in a public meeting extremely unprofessional and inappropriate for someone representing the governor of the state."

Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Robinson stressed that "no one meant any harm to Mr. Torres" and noted the director of the housing commission "felt compelled to apologize to our office for his former employee's claims."

Ramsel, who was at the August meeting, said he did not initially recall Martin's remark. But after reading the transcript, Ramsel concurred with Martin's explanation that it appeared to address the alleged use of illegal workers at that particular O'Fallon work site.

Ramsel said he saw a draft of Torres letter before it was sent and thought it was inappropriate for Torres to complain to Blunt about Martin while signing the letter in his official capacity, instead of as a private citizen.

"I told him it was his choice, but I did not encourage it," Ramsel said.

He declined to say whether Torres resigned voluntarily or was asked to do so.


Associated Press Writer Chris Clark in Kansas City contributed to this report


On the Net:

Blunt: http://www.gov.mo.gov

Housing commission: http://www.mhdc.com

Hispanic coalition: http://www.coho-kc.org

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