COLUMBUS - Citizens could sue and nonunion employees would be fired if government computer databases are mined without just cause for confidential information under a pair of identical bills unveiled yesterday.
The measures respond to recent searches by state and local government employees into the background of Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher. Mr. Wurzelbacher became a national celebrity when he personally challenged Barack Obama on his tax policies while Mr. Obama campaigned in Mr. Wurzelbacher's Springfield Township neighborhood in October.
"It was an abuse of Joe Wurzelbacher's personal privacy," said Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills), sponsor of the Senate bill. "Ohioans share confidential information with state government and expect it's only going to be used for its intended purposes. Here that trust was abused."
Mr. Wurzelbacher is one of Mr. Wagoner's constituents. An identical bill was introduced yesterday in the Ohio House by Rep. Shannon Jones (R., Springboro).
Two weeks ago, Gov. Ted Strickland suspended his director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, Helen Jones-Kelley, for one month without pay.
The disciplinary move followed a determination by state Inspector General Tom Charles that she had improperly authorized database searches for any potential public assistance, child support, and unemployment compensation records on Mr. Wurzelbacher.
He had become a focal point of the final presidential debate between Mr. Obama and Sen. John McCain.
The department then suspended two of Ms. Jones-Kelley's high-level assistants for participating in that decision, and reprimanded two others for failing to safeguard their databases.
It is unclear whether, if this bill had been law then, the decision on how to discipline the department's director and her two immediate subordinates would have been taken out of the hands of Mr. Strickland and the department.
Mr. Charles had determined that they had improperly accessed information on Mr. Wurzelbacher without just cause, but he did not specifically find that they had acted illegally.
These bills would make intentionally accessing and disbursing such information without cause a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail.
"[The governor] has indicated he will take a serious look at any legislative proposal that places into law safeguards so that sensitive personal information is only accessed by government employees who are expressly authorized to do so and only when they have concrete reason to do so . •. •.,' Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said. "In reviewing this bill, he would in no way want to constrict . •. •. public access to public records under Ohio law."
The bill does not mandate that union workers be fired because their disciplinary processes are spelled out in their contracts, Mr. Wagoner said.
The bills would require governments to establish policies for when confidential personal information under their care may be accessed and would require those conducting such a search to state the reason for the search.
Government agencies would be required to track who conducts such searches and would require notification to any private citizen whose data is improperly accessed.
Any person who can prove he was harmed by an intentional intrusion could sue both the state and the individual offender to recover damages and attorney fees, an unusual example of the state voluntarily opening itself up to lawsuits.
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