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Police and others improperly checked Bowersox's background

COLUMBUS — American Idol runner-up Crystal Bowersox gained national acclaim belting out her style of folksy blues on the popular TV show.

But some of the attention the Toledo-area singer received was unflattering, as police and others improperly checked to see if she had a criminal record or blemishes on her driving record.

From computers with access to personal information in confidential state databases, employees of five police agencies and a municipal court rummaged through Bowersox's background.

And in Columbus, an Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles clerk examined vehicles registered in the performer's name, and the home computer of an assistant city prosecutor was used to check on the newly minted star.

An Ohio Department of Public Safety official apologized in a July 1 letter to Bowersox for the unauthorized breaches of her privacy and wrote that there was no evidence she had become an identity-theft victim.

The Bowersox checks are reminiscent of a case two years ago, when state computers were improperly tapped for personal information on Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, the Springfield Township man also known as “Joe the Plumber.”

“I had no idea it happened,” Bowersox told The Blade Wednesday night from her home in Los Angeles. “I'm disgusted by it.”

She said police delivered a certified letter to her father, Bill Bowersox, at work.

Her father didn't tell his daughter about the letter until her visit, a few days after the American Idol Live! tour ended Aug. 31.

“You feel violated … but I guess it comes with the territory,” Bowersox said. “It's completely disgusting that someone would do that to anyone. Not just a celebrity, but anyone. I'm not really sure what [their] motive was. But as far as I know, disciplinary action was taken.

“Part of this whole American Idol thing and being thrown into a spotlight, people are going to get curious. But I don't think any of the people who participated in it would have wanted it to happen to them or their family members. That's disgusting. What if somebody went and did that to their child or sister? It's really saddening and disappointing.”

Bowersox said she would not file a lawsuit.

“I'm not a sue-happy person,” she told The Blade. “What would I get out of these people? They already lost a week's wage. I would not sue somebody for being curious, but it's not OK for someone to snoop into somebody's personal files.”

Bowersox said she wasn't worried about any information they would have found.

“It would have said that I was poor, was on Medicaid, and I was on welfare with my child, and that my driving record was immaculate. My record has nothing on it. I'm not a criminal, I don't do things like that,” she said.

“I'm just a normal human being. My pre-Idol life, I was raised poor and did everything I could to get by in life and that's all they would find. I'm an honest person.”

The Ohio State Highway Patrol detected the searches on Bowersox in late May, after she became an Idol finalist, when a patrol official decided to run an audit for suspicious checks.

Eight improper checks were found between Feb. 24 and May 27, including by police departments in Millersburg, Pemberville, Xenia, and at the Fairfield Medical Center in Lancaster, as well as the Putnam County sheriff's office.

Those checks, plus one involving the Columbus city attorney's office, were conducted through the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway, which is administered by the attorney general's office.

The law enforcement employees who misused the system to check on Bowersox received punishments from their employers ranging from a two-week suspension to written reprimands. Such violations can be punished criminally, but that decision is left to local officials, said Ted Hart, a spokesman for the attorney general's office.

Shawnda Martin, an assistant Columbus prosecutor, received a week off without pay, said chief prosecutor Lara Baker.

Martin was working on her home computer May 25, checking the backgrounds of criminal defendants while a friend watched American Idol on TV.

Martin returned from a trip to the kitchen to find that her friend had typed Bowersox's name into her computer, Baker said.

In Erie County, an employee of Huron Municipal Court was accused of using the Ohio Courts Network, operated by the Ohio Supreme Court, to access personal information on Bowersox.

The employee was forced to resign and could face a misdemeanor charge, the patrol said.

Only one person has been charged with illegally snooping on Bowersox.

At the Bureau of Motor Vehicles headquarters in Columbus, clerk Jay Wright, 47, was fired from his $43,434-a-year job on June 22 for checking Bowersox's vehicle registration information on Feb. 24.

The 17-year state employee said he was merely curious.

“I saw she was indeed from Ohio … and thought, ‘Great, a local girl may have a shot at making it big' and that was that. At no time did I take her personal information, print it, or commit it to memory for any financial or personal gain,” Wright told state officials.

He was indicted last month for unauthorized use of property, a fifth-degree felony carrying up to a year in prison.

Wright, who could not be reached for comment, pleaded not guilty Friday. Patrol spokesman Lt. Gary Lewis said the case was the only one in which the patrol had jurisdiction.

Blade staff writer Kirk Baird contributed to this report.

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