Report: Records Search On Joe The Plumber Improper

By: AP
By: AP

An agency director improperly used state computers to find personal information on "Joe the Plumber," a government watchdog said in a report released Thursday.

There was no legitimate business purpose for the head of Ohio's Department of Job and Family Services to order staff to look up the records, Inspector General Tom Charles said.

Investigators weren't able to determine whether the searches were politically motivated, the report said.

"All these searches were done in the midst of a national political campaign," the report said. "But we 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."

Gov. Ted Strickland suspended the agency director, Helen Jones-Kelley, for a month without pay after reviewing the findings. He rejected a request to fire her.

Jones-Kelley said she accepts Charles' findings and should not have allowed the database searches.

"While there is a disagreement as to whether those searches were done for legitimate business purposes, my only intent was to fulfill my agency's fiduciary responsibilities to Ohio's families," she told the Dayton Daily News in a statement. "I am committed to implementing agency procedures which better protect confidential, personal information."

Earlier this month, Strickland placed Jones-Kelley on paid leave over separate allegations that a state computer or e-mail account was used to assist in political fundraising for Democrat Barack Obama's campaign.

The inspector general's report concluded that she improperly used state e-mail to engage in political activity.

The report looked into 18 background checks into Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, a Toledo-area man known as Joe the Plumber. He became a household name in the final weeks of the presidential campaign after asking Obama about his tax plan at a campaign stop near Toledo.

Eight of the checks were done without any legitimate business purpose, the report said. Charles recommended tighter policies on access to confidential information in state computer databases.

The findings have been forwarded to the Franklin County prosecutor's office in Columbus.

Jones-Kelley has said the search of Wurzelbacher's records were part of routine checks her agency conducts when someone suddenly emerges in the limelight.

She told state Senate President Bill Harris in a letter that records were checked because Wurzelbacher had indicated he might buy a business and it was determined that he owed back taxes. The department wanted to make sure appropriate actions were taken if he owed child support, received public assistance or owed unemployment compensation taxes, she wrote.

Jones-Kelley's reasoning was at times contradictory, inconsistent and ambiguous, the inspector general's report said.

It also found no policies or procedures to support her claim that it was the agency's practice to look into someone thrust in the spotlight.

As Wurzelbacher's profile was elevated in Republican John McCain's campaign, criticism over the Ohio search rose to a fever pitch.

Republicans were furious that Wurzelbacher was targeted, saying that he was simply a private citizen who stood up and questioned the Democratic presidential candidate.

Wurzelbacher did not answer his phone Thursday, and his voicemail box was full.

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