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Published: Friday, 6/22/2007

Statehouse stumble smacks of politics as usual

AFTER years of corruption and ineptness under Republican rule, Ohioans decided to give Democrats a chance last fall. The mandate was not to start over with the same old politics and poor judgment that got the state into such a scandalous fix during the Taft administration, but to change the culture of state government from beneath contempt to above reproach. It didn't seem too much to ask under the circumstances, but maybe it was.

While it's safe to say Democrat Ted Strickland still enjoys the benefit of doubt with most voters, the Ohio governor was recently hard-pressed to explain how an unthinking intern could wind up costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars. Apparently, under an absurd protocol established by the former administration, computer backup tapes containing the personal data of 64,000 state employees were routinely taken home by designated staff as a technical precaution.

For most businesses, safeguarding sensitive computer information involves a contractual investment with a company at an off-site location that receives and stores the data as a defense against a major security breach. The business of state government, however, trusted its critical secrets with a college kid hired as a $10.50-an-hour administration intern.

Incredibly, he was the backup computer protection for 64,000 state employees. Who knew the data he schlepped home to his apartment and left in the trunk of his car - containing workers' names and Social Security numbers - would be stolen?

A chagrined Governor Strickland rescinded the practice of backing up data by having people take it home. Then he assured the potentially compromised employees they would get a year's worth of identity theft protection at a cost to taxpayers of about $731,000.

But that amount could go higher as the state expands the list of Ohioans whose personal information was also on the stolen computer data. The figure is now up to nearly a quarter million taxpayers whose names and Social Security numbers were on the missing data.

The costly bureaucratic stumble reflects badly on the Strickland administration, but the political fallout on the governor himself will probably be limited. The same may not be true of the hurdles tripping up his second in command.

To be fair, Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher did what most politicians do after assuming a powerful position; he rewarded those who helped him get there. But what he failed to comprehend while doling out patronage jobs to friends and family was the higher than usual expectation of the electorate for squeaky clean governance after the mess made by the Taft crowd.

Yet Lee Fisher didn't act like a man under a microscope. He actually professed surprise that his sister-in-law landed a $60,000 position with the Ohio Lottery. And he clearly let his political allegiances cloud his common sense in hiring staff with personal baggage. The Frankie Coleman scandal had all the earmarks of catastrophe from the beginning.

But Mr. Fisher was more concerned with loyalty to a political ally whose husband was his running mate in a former gubernatorial campaign. He later acknowledged misgivings about hiring the wife of Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman for the $70,000-a-year post at the Ohio Department of Development.

She had well-known problems with alcohol which had affected her work ethos before and could again. Sure enough, her attendance became an issue on her second day as assistant manager of Workforce Development. She would call in sick, or just not show up for work, and say she did on time sheets.

A former supervisor said she discussed the chronic absenteeism of Mrs. Coleman along with the incorrect time sheets with her bosses but nothing happened. Eventually, Glenda Williamson, a holdover from the Taft administration, was fired.

A subsequent investigation by Ohio Inspector General Tom Charles found fault not with her termination but with her bosses, including department director Lee Fisher. The inspector general chastised him and other DOD officials "who ignored or were oblivious to warning after warning that Coleman's personal problems were interfering with her job duties."

Regardless of her qualifications, Mr. Charles concluded, hiring Mrs. Coleman was a mistake. Like Mr. Strickland, who acted quickly to make amends for stolen computer data, Mr. Fisher wasted no time establishing damage control.

But the problem he sought to contain reflects directly on him, on his judgment, on his managerial acumen. Unfortunately for a politician who may be eyeing other campaigns, the Coleman incident erased his margin of error among voters.

Maybe that's harsh, but after the last eight years Ohioans have limited tolerance of anything in state office that resembles the same old politics.



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