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Published: 12/18/2008

State official quits over Plumber data search

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF
Ms. Jones-Kelley in a State of Ohio photo prior to her resignation as Director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Ms. Jones-Kelley in a State of Ohio photo prior to her resignation as Director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
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COLUMBUS The director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services last night quit her job rather than return after a one-month suspension for authorizing the mining of state databases for information on Samuel Joe the Plumber Wurzelbacher.

Word of her resignation came from Gov. Ted Strickland s office shortly after the state Senate overwhelmingly supported a bill that might have resulted in her firing if it had been law two months ago.

This decision comes after having a time of pause in which I realize that I continue to be used as a political postscript providing a distraction from urgent state priorities, Helen Jones-Kelley wrote in a statement released by Mr. Strickland s office.

She also expressed continued concern for the safety of herself and her family after receiving threats over the Wurzelbacher incident.

For a time, taxpayers provided around-the-clock security for her.

On Nov. 20, Mr. Strickland suspended Ms. Jones-Kelley for a month without pay after she authorized searches of state public assistance, unemployment, and child-support databases for information on Mr. Wurzelbacher of Springfield Township.

Two other department underlings who played roles in that decision were temporarily suspended without pay.

After an investigation, the Ohio Inspector General determined the searches were unjustified but stopped short of finding that they were politically motivated.

Mr. Wurzelbacher became an overnight celebrity when he challenged then-presidential nominee Barack Obama on his tax policies while the candidate campaigned in Mr. Wurzelbacher s neighborhood in October.

Republican nominee John McCain used Mr. Wurzelbacher to put a face on his own criticisms of Mr. Obama and made Joe the Plumber a focal point of the final presidential debate.

In the immediate wake of that debate, it was discovered that 16 searches of state databases were conducted of Mr. Wurzebacher s name, including those authorized by Ms. Jones-Kelley.

Both the House and Senate worked into the late hours last night as lawmakers prepared to bring the two-year legislative session to a close no later than today.

The Senate voted 30-2 yesterday to send a revised bill back to the House to crack down on those who would use their access to state databases to snoop on private citizens. The House was expected last night to forward it on to Mr. Strickland, who has said he would be willing to consider it.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Shannon Jones (R., Springboro), who had argued that the governor had been too lenient with Ms. Jones-Kelley, a former director of a similar Montgomery County agency.

It is unfortunate that we have to legislate this type of issue, but following what happened to my constituent, Joe Wurzelbacher, it was clear that something had to be done, said Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills), who introduced an identical bill in the Senate.

I am confident that the provisions outlined in this bill will not only help to prevent future invasions like this from occurring, but also work to ensure those who do abuse their authority and inappropriately access a person s confidential information are held accountable, Mr. Wagoner said.

Sen. Ray Miller (D., Columbus), one of the two negative votes, leapt to Ms. Jones-Kelley s defense.

A lot of people make mistakes, Mr. Miller said. So she made a mistake, and the governor properly disciplined her with a 30-day suspension. This is a very fine person. It s not like you have somebody out there who s just trying to hurt individuals.

The rapid pace of what had become known in the Statehouse halls as the Joe the Plumber Bill proved that the Senate could act at lightning speed when it wanted to. The chamber held its first hearing yesterday morning on the House-passed bill and within hours was voting it out of the full Senate.

In addition to mandating the firing of employees involved in improper searches, the bill also opens them up to potential criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits.

The bill mandates that, as the state replaces and upgrades computer systems over time, it must include the capability to electronically track who conducts searches on whom and why.

In other legislative action:

wThe House sent to Mr. Strickland a bill increasing the penalties for crimes associated with human trafficking, the enslavement and coercion of victims, typically women and children, into prostitution. The bill also calls for an in-depth study into the problem of human trafficking in Ohio beyond prostitution.

wThe Senate voted 27-5 to require that children between the ages of 4 and 8 or shorter than 4 feet, 9 inches tall must travel in booster seats while in a motor vehicle. A violation would be a secondary offense that cannot be the primary reason for pulling a driver over, similar to the way Ohio s seat-belt law operates.

wThe Senate was expected to send Mr. Strickland a controversial bill to eliminate the so-called Golden Week in which Ohioans this year could simultaneously register and vote absentee, a five-day period created by two overlapping election laws. Despite cautions from Mr. Strickland and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner against rushing new election reforms in a lame-duck session, the Republican-controlled General Assembly voted to reduce the period for absentee voting to 20 days before the election instead of the current 35. The registration deadline remains 30 days for an election.

wThe House voted 86-8 to send the governor a bill designed to preserve the Bureau of Workers Compensation s practice of setting discounted premiums for its group-rating program for employers with good safety records.

The bill reacts to a recent Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court ruling that determined that the BWC s failure to set premiums based on an employer s most recent claims history violated a 1995 law and resulted in businesses outside the groups unfairly subsidizing the discounts of those on the inside.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com, or 614-221-0496.



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