COLUMBUS - Republicans will use some of their few remaining days in control of the Ohio House to pursue legislation cracking down on those who improperly mine government databases for information on private citizens such as ''Joe the Plumber.''
"A lot of the time we talk about creating databases around here for the purpose of protecting people," outgoing House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) said. "But when those databases are misused, it undermines the credibility of even creating them to begin with.
"That is one of the scariest things that can happen to an individual, to think that somehow if you speak out about government somebody's going to dig up dirt to discredit you."
Ohio Inspector General Tom Charles is investigating reports
that computers in the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, the attorney general's office, and other agencies were used to search government records pertaining to Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher.
Mr. Wurzelbacher, of Springfield Township, became an overnight celebrity and the face of Republican presidential candidate John McCain's criticism of Barack Obama when he challenged the Democratic candidate's tax policies while he was in the Toledo area in October.
Helen Jones-Kelley, director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, admitted approving a search of records that might pertain to Mr. Wurzelbacher. She characterized the search as routine given Mr. Wurzelbacher's suggestion that he had the financial means to buy a plumbing business. She never released the results.
Although that is part of Mr. Charles' investigation, Gov. Ted Strickland last week placed Ms. Jones-Kelley on paid administrative leave because e-mails from her office suggested that she may have used state computers to aid Mr. Obama's fund-raising.
A records clerk in the Toledo police investigative services bureau separately faces departmental charges of gross misconduct for accessing a state database for information on Mr. Wurzelbacher at the request of a local television reporter.
"Overall, the governor is willing to look at anything the speaker brings forward, but the governor does think it important to consider the inspector general's recommendations," Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said.
But Mr. Husted said he doesn't think lawmakers need to wait for the investigation's results before pursuing changes in state law.
"How widely this was abused is an issue that is pending in the investigation, and I encourage the inspector general to take the time he needs to do that thoroughly," he said. "But looking at the law regarding what the penalties are and what the limitations are is something we don't have to wait on an investigation to identify. Clearly the law we have now was not enough of a deterrent to prevent it from happening."
Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo) said Democrats would probably be open to talks on the subject.
"But if they're just trying to stir the pot on the subject, that's a different story," he said.
Republicans will surrender control of the chamber in January to Democrats, who will hold at least a 51-49 majority. That leaves a handful of lame duck session days this month and in December under GOP control.
But with Mr. Strickland in a position of vetoing any bill Democrats' dislike and with Republicans lacking an override majority, it's unlikely they'll pass anything highly controversial into law.
They are expected to finalize a military bonus program for Ohio veterans of more recent wars, something proposed months ago that was delayed over the question of how to pay for it.
There also have been discussions about Republicans trying to undo changes recently made by Mr. Strickland that are expected to lead to more public works projects paying higher prevailing wages. The GOP has talked about making changes in Ohio's election law in the wake of the most recent election. Both of these latter proposals remain indefinite, Mr. Husted said.
Contact Jim Provance at:
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