IG Finds Jones-Kelley Acted Improperly; Strickland Orders One-Month, Unpaid Suspension
Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) Director Helen Jones-Kelley was found to have acted improperly both in her authorization to use ODJFS confidential databases to search for information on "Joe the Plumber" and in her use of state resources to engage in political activity in a report issued Thursday by the state’s Inspector General (IG) Thomas Charles.
In response, Gov. Ted Strickland late on Thursday announced that he was suspending Jones-Kelley for one month without pay, saying that he values “her contributions to the state and her local community” but that he accepts the IG’s judgment “that there was not an adequate business purpose for the searches in question. I also accept his determination that her personal BlackBerry was inappropriately synchronized, resulting in emails she perceived to be personal being transmitted through governmental email resources.”
Strickland also issued a management directive that is applicable to all state agencies, boards and commissions regarding the proper use of state databases “to help ensure that a situation such as this never happens again.” That directive addresses improving existing data privacy safeguards, defining “sensitive personal information” and establishing policies regarding access to sensitive personal information.
Regarding “Joe the Plumber” – Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, who gained prominence during the presidential race when his questions of now President-Elect Barack Obama were highlighted by Republican candidate John McCain during the third debate – Charles found that not only had Jones-Kelley acted improperly but also that, of the 18 separate records checks conducted by various state agencies on him, “eight were conducted … without any legitimate business purpose.”
As a result, the IG found “an omission on the part of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office for failing to prevent a misuse of the OHLEG [Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway] system by an agency contractor, and a wrongful act with the contractor for using OHLEG to access confidential information about Wurzelbacher.” This latter instance remains the subject of a criminal investigation by the Ohio State Highway Patrol, while the AG’s office issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying, “New security policies now are in effect in the attorney general’s office so that nobody without current authorization can access the OHLEG system.”
In addition to the OHLEG site and the three confidential ODJFS systems [Support Enforcement Tracking System (SETS) for child support enforcement; the Client Registry Information System Enhanced (CRIS-E), which maintains records pertaining to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program; and the Ohio Job Insurance (OJI) which contains information about unemployment benefits], searches were also conducted by the Department of Public Safety of its Bureau of Motor Vehicle database and by the Department of Taxation of its database systems. The IG said that these latter two departments’ searches “were not inappropriate” and the information released was public information.
Still being investigated are searches conducted by an independently contracted BMV deputy registrar’s office in Sylvania, the Toledo Police Department and the Cuyahoga Support Enforcement Agency.
Specifically regarding the investigation of Jones-Kelley, the IG notes in the report that the “justifications she offered in support of her decision [to authorize the searches] were not credible, and they included contradictions, ambiguity and inconsistencies. The information she said she relied on emanated from unreliable sources, such as blogs and hearsay. Therefore, we find that she had no reasonable basis to authorize searches on Wurzelbacher.”
The IG reported that Jones-Kelley had indicated that searching the ODJFS databases was “agency practice … when someone is ‘thrust quickly into the public spotlight.’” However, the IG said that no policies or procedures were found to support that assertion, and that interviews with two previous agency directors (Barbara Riley and Tom Hayes) indicated it was not the practice to approve any inquiries based on someone’s obtaining “celebrity” status other than when the Lottery Commission seeks information, under an interagency agreement, on a lottery winner.
Despite these findings, however, the IG notes that he “did not find any evidence that shows the data was accessed or information released in response to media requests in an effort to support any political activity or agenda … However, the circumstances surrounding the unauthorized searches are exacerbated in light of the director’s sending and receiving email related to a political activity through state resources.”
Concerning the use of state resources for politicking, Jones-Kelley told the IG that she believed the use of her personal BlackBerry did not involve the use of state resources – an assertion the IG called “not credible” due to the fact that “she sought assistance from a state network services technician” to synchronize her BlackBerry with the ODJFS email system. “As a result of her request, emails sent from her BlackBerry went through the ODJFS email system. This necessarily uses state email resources to send and receive BlackBerry messages.”
Reactions Roll In
It did not take long for reactions to start rolling in. Sen. Tim Grendell (R-Chesterland) issued a news release Thursday afternoon saying that he “is again calling upon Gov. Ted Strickland to dismiss ODJFS Director Helen Jones-Kelley immediately….”
He went on to say that there is “a new culture of corruption in Ohio, but this time the Democrats are the guilty party. Director Jones-Kelley joins the Ohio Democrat Wall of Shame, which includes resigned Attorney General Marc Dann, resigned former state representative Matt Barrett and the slew of Democrat officials now being investigated in Cuyahoga County.”
Senate President Bill Harris (R-Ashland) issued his own response later in the afternoon, calling not only for Jones-Kelley’s dismissal but also that of Deputy Director of Child Support Doug Thompson. Harris said in his letter to Strickland, “You entrusted these individuals with sensitive information regarding thousands of Ohioans. They not only failed in their responsibilities to protect that information, but they abused positions of authority to access confidential databases for what, based on the evidence released today, had no legitimate state government purpose, was not in response to media requests and appears to be based on political motivations.”
More damning, however, is Harris statement that Jones-Kelley “misled” him in her response to his initial letter expressing concern over the accessing of the databases. (See The Hannah Report, 10/29/08.)
He goes on to say, “Governor, we have often talked about he challenges we face and of the need to find common ground and work together to do what is best for our great state, regardless of our political persuasions. This cooperation is not possible if legislators cannot trust the information we are given from any individual that serves in your administration.
“I hope you will take the necessary steps to restore Ohioans’ trust in their government by installing new leadership at the department and by working closely with the Ohio House and Senate on legislation to address the policy shortfalls that have been uncovered at the ODJFS and other agencies that maintain public information databases. I hope to address these problems before the close of the current session so that we can start off on the right foot come January.”
Harris’ call for the termination of Thompson is in response to the report’s finding that he had made a deliberate attempt to, after the fact, couch the search of the child support database in terms of agency business. The report notes, “We believe that this email orchestrated by Thompson was an attempt to deceive as there was no agency function or purpose for accessing Wurzelbacher’s records.”
Story originally published in The Hannah Report on November 20, 2008. Copyright 2008 Hannah News Service, Inc.