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Published: 12/11/2008

House passes bill to punish state workers for snooping databases

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - The lame-duck Ohio House yesterday rushed passage of a bill cracking down on state employees who use state databases for "dirt-digging'' on residents.

The bill passed, 69-26, with some Democrats balking at the potential price tag to upgrade Ohio's computer systems to electronically track who is running checks on whom.

The bill now goes to the Senate, which is expected to act swiftly in sending it to Gov. Ted Strickland next week before lawmakers bring the 2007-08 legislative session to a close.

It remains to be seen how the bill will be handled by Mr. Strickland, who was criticized by House Republicans yesterday for not firing Helen Jones-Kelley, director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, after a state investigation determined she improperly approved the mining of public assistance, unemployment, and child support databases for potential information on Samuel "Joe the Plumber'' Wurzelbacher.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Shannon Jones (R., Springboro), would remove the governor's discretion in such matters, mandating the firing of any state employee who knowingly violates state privacy policy.

Following a state investigation, Mr. Strickland suspended Ms. Jones-Kelley for one month without pay. The department subsequently suspended two of her top subordinates for four weeks and two weeks for their roles in the matter.

"It's one thing for an intern to go out and lose all the records of our bank accounts, our Social Security records, and [information on] hundreds of thousands of other folks,'' said Rep. Tom Brinkman (R., Cincinnati). "He, of course, was told he was fired.

"But instead we have a high-ranking official who's given some vacation time so she can do her Christmas shopping, prying into the private life of a citizen because a presidential candidate happened to come into his front yard ,'' he said. "I'm very frugal, but I would spend $100 million tomorrow to protect everyone in the state of Ohio's private information [system].''

Mr. Wurzelbacher, of Springfield Township, became the focal point of the final presidential debate in October after he challenged Barack Obama on his tax policies while the presidential candidate campaigned in his neighborhood.

Republican John McCain then put Joe the Plumber's face on his own criticism of Mr. Obama.

Soon after the debate, 16 separate searches of state government databases were conducted of Mr. Wurzelbacher's name, including those conducted by Job and Family Services.

That department has estimated that upgrading all computer systems in state government to include electronic tracking of searches of certain databases could cost anywhere between $100 million and $400 million.

"We're facing a fiscal crisis, a $4 billion to $5 billion deficit over the next biennium,'' said Rep. Stephen Driehaus (D., Cincinnati). "People are going to lose their jobs. They're losing their health insurance. They're losing their homes and we are talking about adding to the bureaucracy of the state of Ohio.''

Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said the governor is willing to consider the bill, but is concerned about the possible cost.

Before the vote, the bill was amended to buy time to gradually upgrade technology to electronically track who's checking on whom in state databases.

The bill now requires the state to include such a capability on all future system installations and upgrades rather than require an overnight conversion.

The Ohio Department of Taxation is currently testing such a system.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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