Ohio IG Report: Joe the Plumber's Records Were Improperly Searched
By Mary Pat Flaherty
The director of an Ohio human services agency has been suspended for a month without pay and faces review by a county prosecutor for using confidential state databases to find personal information on "Joe the Plumber." She will also face review for using her state e-mail address to help Barack Obama's fundraising by identifying potential contributors and offering her own $2,500 donation.
Helen E. Jones-Kelley, head of Ohio's Department of Jobs and Family Services, authorized the searches within days of Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher gaining national attention during a presidential debate in which both candidates took turns pitching their tax plans as best for "Joe the Plumber," as Wurzelbacher became known after a chance run in with Obama at an Ohio campaign stop.
Ohio's Inspector General concluded in a report that Jones-Kelley had wrongly authorized searches of Wurzelbacher through records kept on child support payments, temporary aid to families and unemployment benefits. A state employee concerned that privacy rules had been violated initially disclosed the breaches.
The report said that while the searches "were done in the midst of a political campaign," there was no evidence the information was released "in an effort to support any political activity or agenda."
Jones-Kelley told investigators that it was agency practice to check the backgrounds of someone "thrust quickly into the public spotlight," but Thursday's report from Inspector General Thomas P. Charles said there were "no policies or procedures to support her."
In a statement issued through her attorney, Jones-Kelley said, "I accept the content of the Inspector General's report and should not have allowed the Wurzelbacher searches to move forward." She continued, "There is a disagreement as to whether those searches were done for legitimate business purposes," and also asserted that "no confidential information was released."
Wurzelbacher did not reply to messages at a plumbing firm where he has worked. His home voicemail was full and he did not respond to a page left there.
In the wake of media reports, Wurzelbacher cleared a $1,200 lien for back taxes that a state official had said he may not have been aware of.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) issued Jones-Kelley's unpaid suspension yesterday, although the director already had been on paid leave since Nov. 7 over the use of her government e-mail for political fundraising. Strickland said he "accepted" the report's findings about the searches and the e-mail violations and issued a directive to all state agencies about proper use of databases.
A copy of the Inspector's Report was sent for "review and consideration" to the Franklin County prosecutor's office in Columbus. Jones-Kelley's attorney, H. Ritchey Hollenbaugh of Columbus, noted that the report did not specifically ask for a review for criminal prosecution.
Searches of Wurzelbacher's driving history also were made using an account through the Toledo Police Department, which is investigating those actions, the report stated. A former information technology contractor for the Ohio Attorney General's office conducted a review of driving records for Wurzelbacher and others, without the office's knowledge, yesterday's report said. Those searches are being investigated by the Ohio State Highway Patrol for possible criminal charges, the Inspector General report stated.
The searches of government records involving "Joe the Plumber" have become hotly debated in Ohio. "Ohioans expect and deserve better from Governor Strickland and his team," said Republican Party Deputy Chairman Kevin DeWine.
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