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By B.J. Pollock - Fort Bend Herald

Reprinted with permission

Fort Bend County Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers is in Austin, where he said Attorney General Greg Abbott is expected to present "language to fix the problem" created by an opinion he issues last week and abated Wednesday morning.

"I'm up here trying to see what we can do," he said. "Things are unfolding very rapidly."

Meyers said Abbott is expected to bring to the Legislature Friday a solution to the chaos caused by his opinion ruling it illegal for the county clerks to post on their Web sites Public Records containing sensitive information such as Social Security numbers.

Abbott abated that ruling Wednesday morning, saying legislative leaders contacted his office with "serious concerns" about the opinion, which brought to a "virtual halt" business for landman, surveyors, title companies and the like.

The issue of Fort Bend County Clerk Dianne Wilson's bulk sale of documents containing sensitive information to vendors for marketing purposes was exposed by the Fort Bend Herald in a series of articles in December, 2005.

At the time, Wilson defended her decision to make those 15 to 20 million records accessible worldwide via the Internet.

But Meyers said he has opposed the process all along, and Wilson has had the software to "hide and Social Security number or any other number" on those documents since she purchased the program to place them on the Internet.

"She had the ability to do that almost from the very beginning and she refused to do it than and when I asked her to, too," Meyers said. "Since the opinion has come out, she has started hiding the Social Security numbers; before that, when I suggested she do that, she wouldn't. As it turned out, that's exactly what the AG said she should do."

However, Wilson said Wednesday evening she has no such software.

"How in the hell would he know what we're doing? I don't appreciate somebody second-guessing what I'm doing or what I have or what I don't have," Wilson said.

She  has checked with a vendor about getting software to "cleanse the records," and estimates it will cost about $50,000 and should be installed in May or June.

"We're tired and we're working a helluva lot of overtime," Wilson said. "We've been here ('til) 6:30 (p.m.) every night. We're having to read every single word on every single page on ever single document. We've been closed to the public since last Friday and it's just going to cost us a lot of time and money."

But Meyers said Wilson's office has the money to pay for the software in the form of the county clerks' record preservation fund. Meyers said the fund s were first received 15 years "to preserve old records that had been deteriorating, and Wilson has been "using the fund as a slush fund to buy the things she wanted that we (Commissioners Court) wouldn't approve."

Meyers said he wants to use those funds to pay for redaction, but Wilson must make the request to do so; it cannot come from commissioners. He also said county clerks do not want to spend those funds on redaction.

Wilson said she will go to Commissioners' Court to ask for the $50,000 to pay for the software for redaction.

"We have a major issue that we are in dispute over - at least Dianne and I are," Meyers said not only of the funds to pay for redaction, but the issue of redaction as whole. "But I don't care if they get mad at me or not. I'm just doing what I think is right."

He said the county clerks who shut down their offices as a result of Abbott's opinion last week "were doing so to protect themselves. They're looking for protection or coverage or immunity from prosecution for official misconduct. That move was to protect themselves from being removed from office.

"They were shutting their offices to get leverage," he continued. "They were looking for an agreement with the DAs (district attorneys) that if they opened their offices back up, they would not be prosecuted. I saw it as nothing but a ploy on their part to try and get themselves protection. And I know Dianne's behind it because she's been burning up the airwaves; I've heard from several people here in Austin that she's telling them to keep their doors shut 'til they get their leverage."

Meyers said local government code lists bases on which an officials can be removed from office: public intoxication, conviction of a misdemeanor or felony, and official misconduct. The latter, he said, includes not complying with a law. The latter, he said, applies in the case of county clerks who have posted Social Security numbers on documents via the Internet.

"And it's a federal law, at that," he added. "There is a provision in the Social Security Act that says of a state requires an individual to provide their Social Security number (on a document), their Social Security number is protected by law."

In fact, the County Clerk Procedure Manual distributed by the Texas Office of Court Administration states, "Federal law provides as follows: Social Security account numbers and related records that are obtained or maintained by authorized persons pursuant to any provision of law enacted on or after Oct. 1, 1990 shall be confidential , and no authorized person shall disclose any such Social Security account number or related record."

It further states, "The county clerk must make the document in which the Social Security number is contained open to the public,. but the Social Security number must first be redacted."

Meyers said any resident can file a complaint to have a public official removed from office. He also said he was in Austin to testify against House Bill 2061, which he described as "a bill to essentially make legal the disclosure of Social Security numbers."

"I don't think we should make public that kind of thing," he said. "To me, that defeats the purpose of the statute (in the Social Security Act) in the first place."

Meyers said the county attorney's office told him Wilson never asked for an opinion about posting sensitive information on the Internet before doing so, and he believes it is the government's responsibility to let citizens know they have the right to remove sensitive information from documents before they are filed with the county clerk's office. He said he previously suggested posting large signs in the county clerk's office with that information, but Wilson refused to do that "until recently."

For her part, Wilson said although "we took everything off the Web and we closed down the office" as of last Friday, indexes are still available on the internet, and requested documents are still being made available by office workers who make copies and black out Social Security numbers before releasing them.

"The county clerks offices were never designed to redact information. What they put in, I can't reject," she said, adding she does not allow pornography to be put into record.

As for the results of Abbott's opinion and latest decision, Wilson said, "We're dealing with it one day at a time, one moment at a time. It's changing every hour, every minute."

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