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Published: Friday, 12/5/2008

Whistle-blower: 'Joe the Plumber' deserves apology

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - The state of Ohio owes "Joe the Plumber" an apology, the whistle-blower who helped expose government intrusion into his private life told lawmakers yesterday.

"To my knowledge, [Samuel J.] Wurzelbacher has not received an apology from anyone regarding how his personal information was handled. That's too bad, because he deserves an apology," Vanessa Niekamp, an Ohio Department of Job and Family Services employee, said.

It was Ms. Niekamp's testimony that enabled the Ohio Inspector General's office to tie the mining of state computer databases for information on Mr. Wurzelbacher to three high-ranking officials in the agency, three of whom have been suspended without pay.

Mr. Wurzelbacher became nationally known when he challenged then presidential candidate Barack Obama on his tax policies while the Democrat campaigned in his Springfield Township neighborhood in October.

Republican nominee John McCain made Mr. Wurzelbacher a focal point of the final presidential debate. Afterwards, 16 separate searches of state government databases were conducted for information on Mr. Wurzelbacher.

Among them were searches of the child support, public assistance, and unemployment compensation databases under the care of ODJFS. Ms. Niekamp told the committee she was ordered to access the child support database by a superior, and she did so, not immediately making the connection between Mr. Wurzelbacher and the suddenly famous "Joe the Plumber."

"To this day, I do not understand why they asked me to look up this information when they could easily have done this themselves," she told the House State Government and Elections Committee. The committee may vote next week on a bill to increase the criminal penalty for someone who intentionally accesses government databases without sufficient cause and to mandate that such an employee be fired.

"We have the right to say the king is bad ," said Rep. Shannon Jones (R., Springboro), sponsor of the House bill. "The systematic misuse of government databases and the governor's woeful under-reaction to state government workers engaging in this outrageous behavior make (House Bill) 648 necessary."

After Inspector General Tom Charles completed his investigation, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland suspended ODJFS Director Helen Jones-Kelley for one month without pay. Two of her immediate subordinates - Doug Thompson, director of child support, and Fred Williams, assistant director - were suspended for four weeks and two weeks, respectively.

The three had conferred before Ms. Jones-Kelley authorized the searches.

Ms. Niekamp went to the inspector general after Mr. Thompson allegedly pressured her into writing a misleading e-mail to the state's privacy officer to justify the child support record search. She described Mr. Thompson as "very upset" in that meeting.

"His neck was bright red, and he closed the door," she said. After he reminded her that she was a nonunion employee who could be fired for any reason, she said he proceeded to dictate what she was to write.

She then went directly to the office of Mr. Charles, who was investigating the database searches. Mr. Charles has referred his investigative report to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, who will determine whether a crime has occurred.

After yesterday's hearing, Ms. Jones said she believed that if her bill were law when these searches occurred the three high-ranking officials would have lost their jobs rather than face suspensions that she characterized as "entirely too lenient."

Mr. Strickland has expressed a willingness to consider the bill.

"I've had some conversations with a couple of my colleagues, and I think we all agree that we should have some kind of set policies to deal with personal information," said Rep. Dan Stewart (D., Columbus), the committee's ranking Democrat. "But there are issues that you don't think about in terms of when does it become public information. We need to have some further discussion." Ms. Jones has not asked Mr. Wurzelbacher to testify in support of her bill.

"He's entitled to his private life, so we haven't reached out to him," she said. "But we'd love to have him if he'd like to come."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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