County clerk slapped by AG ruling
By Stephen Palkot - Fort Bend Herald
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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