Miami An attorney for Immigration and Naturalization Service employees said in a deposition that his clients were told to destroy or conceal documents that contained "anything derogatory" about the Elian Gonzalez case.
Donald Appignani made the statement while testifying for a federal lawsuit filed by Elian's Miami relatives against the INS and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno claiming the April 22 armed raid that removed the boy from their home violated their constitutional rights.
In his deposition, Appignani said Miami INS workers had told him the U.S. government could be breaking the law by ordering evidence destruction, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Saturday.
Appignani declined to disclose which employees told him of the orders, who gave the instructions and what information the documents and electronic mail contained.
He said in an interview with the Fort Lauderdale-based newspaper that he didn't hear the alleged orders and doesn't know whether the allegations were true.
"Basically this is what I heard," Appignani testified. "People were instructed to remove anything derogatory to the Elian Gonzalez case."
Appignani also testified that INS employees thought there was an atmosphere of contempt at the agency's Miami office toward Cuban Americans.
"That type of statement is ridiculous," said John Sheairy, chief of staff for district director Robert Wallis. "The men and women for the Miami district are professionals."
INS spokeswoman Patricia Mancha said Saturday that she could not comment on the accusations because the case was pending.
Appignani said he approached Ronald Guralnick, the attorney for the family of Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's great-uncle, about the information in November at the request of his clients.
Guralnick has asked a federal judge to force Appignani to disclose the information, and the U.S. Attorney's Office has said it would support the motion.
"This is a major break in the case," Guralnick said. "I'm looking forward to the court's ruling ... and I'm looking forward to talking to (Appignani's) clients."
The Gonzalez lawsuit claims Reno and the INS used false statements to obtain arrest and search warrants used in the predawn raid that seized Elian, then 6, and reunited him with his father, who took him back to Cuba.
Elian had been in the care of the Miami relatives since he was rescued on Thanksgiving Day 1999 clinging to an innertube off Fort Lauderdale. His mother and 10 others died when the boat smuggling them from Cuba to Florida sank.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.