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County clerk slapped by AG ruling

By Stephen Palkot - Fort Bend Herald

Friday, February 23, 2007

Reprinted with permission

Fort Bend County Clerk Dianne Wilson may have violated criminal law by posting Social Security numbers among county documents on her office's Web site, according to an opinion released this week by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

What happens next isn't yet clear, other than Wilson has been ordered by Abbott to redact the numbers, hundreds of which remained on the Web site Friday morning.

The sometimes scathing opinion came after a request from former County Attorney Bud Childers to determine the legality of the practice.

Wilson in 2003 began the process of making all court files in her office available for online viewing through the county's Web site. Although she was praised by some, her efforts were questioned by county court-at-law judges even as she began. In late 2005 the story was brought to light by a series of articles in The Fort Bend Herald.

Many of the documents that run through Wilson's office, in particular probate documents, contain Social Security numbers, bank routing numbers and other information that could be used by enterprising criminals.

Wilson, who is attending a conference in Austin, could not be reached for comment. County Attorney Roy Cordes, to whom Abbott's opinion is addressed, said Thursday that he and other county officials have been meeting to discuss the letter and its implications. He said a meeting early next week will be held with Wilson to discuss what to do next.

 

"It's a fairly complicated opinion," said Cordes, "and we're working through it right now."

Cordes declined to answer specific questions about the ruling, including whether Wilson or other county officials could be subject to criminal charges.

"The AG made reference to a statuatory provision that allows criminal charges if you violate the law related to confidential information. And there is some language about what is confidential information under the AG opinion, so it's a fact question and we'll have to go back and look at everything," he said.

Abbott, in his opinion, stressed the danger of identity theft and the potential for harm with the publication of individuals' Social Security numbers.

"Indeed, it is universally agreed that Social Security numbers are at the heart of identity theft and fraud," said Abbott, "and in today's Internet world where information - including public government information - can be instantly and anonymously obtained by anyone with access to the worldwide web, the danger is even greater."

Texas Government Code Section 552.147(a) states "the Social Security number of a person is exempted" from the Open Records law that requires the disclosure of government documents to the public at large.

Abbott stated that while Social Security numbers may be included on docments considered public record, they should be redacted from those documents before they are distributed.

Furthermore, Abbott pointed out that the release of Social Security numbers does not advance the aims of the Public Information Act because it "does not serve the purpose of openness in government in any forseeable way".

The statute in question, Section 552.147, was created by the Texas Legislature in 2005. Abbott argues that Texas law prior to Section 552.147 did place many specific restrictions on the release of Social Security numbers by a government or private entitity, but Section 552.147 closed many of the "gaps" by making the restriction "all-encompassing."

Texas Government Code Section 552.352 makes the distribution of confidential information a crime in some cases, punishable by a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $1,000 or six months in jail.

Abbott does not specifically state whether Wilson or any county officials may have broken the law

Abbott also takes on the question of whether files in a Texas county clerk's office must have Social Security numbers redacted. He argues that the original files in the courthouse may not be altered to redact the numbers, since those directly involved in a case may need access to that information.

However, any copies of paperwork that contain Social Security numbers should have those redacted, said Abbott, including certified copies. He states that certified copies must be stamped to indicate that information has been redacted.

As Wilson began the process in 2002, she rebuffed efforts by county court-at-law judges to question the practice, ironically using an attorney general's opinion that the judges had no jurisdiction.

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