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Don’t Let Identity Theft Rob Your Election

 

David Bloys - News for Public Officials

March-18-2007

 

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Concerns about ID theft from online records swept candidates in and out of office in 2006. Voters sent a clear message that ignoring their need for security would be dangerous for political futures. This message could be the key to the office you seek, or the lock that bars your re-election in 2008. The voters were talking. Were you paying attention?

 

Former County Clerk Rick Allen of Oneida County New York ignored his voters. Allen was comfortably ensconced in the position for over 5 years until he posted the personal information of Oneida County property owner's on the Internet in December 2005. Allen's action prompted outrage from local citizens. Letters poured in to the Utica Observer Dispatch and the Oneida County Bar Association voiced their concerns about private information found in the county’s online documents.

 

When Allen obstinately refused to listen to his own constituents, local Republicans replaced him as their candidate of choice for the 2006 election. Allen switched sides to run under the Working Families banner. Unfortunately for the Republicans, it was too little, too late.

 

When Sandra DePerno entered the race as a Democrat, most people "in the know" never thought that she had any kind of a realistic shot at actually winning the job. But shortly after DePerno made her promise to protect the records, the Central New York Political Insider predicted, "Sandy DePerno will be Oneida County's next Clerk".

 

DePerno ran on a platform that promised to protect local citizens from exploitation by those outside the jurisdiction. Her promise resonated with the voters and she captured 45% of the votes. Allen received only 12%.

 

Less than a week after taking office, DePerno kept her promise to protect Oneida County citizens. She pulled the plug on sensitive records that her predecessor had posted online.

 

Former Texas Dallas County Clerk Cynthia Figueroa (R) also saw her dreams of re-election go up in smoke in 2006 when a little known civil district court administrator and former county court manager called attention to the records Figueroa had placed online. Figueroa was elected Dallas County clerk in 2002 after promising to modernize the office that maintains court files, real estate records, marriage records and other public documents. Figueroa turned the Clerk’s office into an online repository searchable by anyone, anywhere in the world.

 

When Democrat challenger John Warren asked voters last year to decide if Figueroa’s modernization had gone too far and placed them at risk, the voters replaced Figueroa with the more security conscious candidate. Warren’s mission to protect citizens from online identity theft received a boost in February when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an order to online county clerks in Texas that their websites breached Federal and State laws.

 

Shortly after the AG’s ruling, Warren told the Dallas Morning News,” This is the ammunition I need to support my cause," he said. "Technology is good and helpful. But we (county clerks) have to be a little more careful because of the information we have."

 

20-year incumbent Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir avoided the issue for 2006. Faced with years of  complaints from concerned citizens and Republican challenger James Crabtree, DeBeauvoir pulled the document images off her website last June.

 

"My obligation as an elected official is to respond to legitimate public concern and to do everything within my authority to protect people now," she said.

 

Sadly, just one month after DeBeauvoir was re-elected she abandoned her obligation to her constituents in favor of appeasing those outside the jurisdiction who were profiting from Travis County's online records.

 

Last December, she announced to the press, "Today I am happy to report that we are able to make available approximately 10 million images for the use of our online customers."

 

DeBeauvoir said that her decision to put the records back online came after an extensive project to remove individual personal information like social security numbers and birthdates the county had previously published online.

 

But researchers with FindMyId.com, The Virginia Watchdog  and News for Public Officials quickly found financial, medical, and Social Security numbers the county failed to find or redact.

 

Two months later, at the request of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, DeBeauvoir once again pulled the plug on the county's collection of online records .

 

Abbott's ruling stated specifically, "Prior to posting a record on the Internet, the clerk must redact the SSNs of living persons from any record subject to the PIA (Public Records Act)

 

Democrats weren't the only candidates who were swept into office on platforms that called for keeping the records offline. In Lubbock County, Texas where the records have never been placed online, Kelly Pinion faced three opponents for Lubbock County Clerk in the Republican primary who wanted to put the records online to benefit outside businesses.

 

The candidates were vying for the job previously held by Doris Ruff. Before Ruff announced she was retiring, she signed contracts with Hart InterCivic that would make it possible to publish the county's records online.

 

Pinion, a former Public Records researcher and title examiner ran on a platform of improving access at the courthouse while protecting sensitive information from being distributed over the Web.

 

The four-way race led to a runoff between Pinion and former Shallowater Mayor and veteran politician Mike Arismendez. When Arismendez came out with a statement that he intended to make the records “open and accessible” the voters soundly defeated the former mayor in an upset victory that gave Pinion nearly 2/3 of the vote.

 

Greg Hartmann learned the hard way that voters are more concerned with having their privacy protected than having their elected officials serve the wishes of businesses outside the jurisdiction. Ironically, Hartmann paid a price for his predecessor’s mistake. Greg Hartmann is the Clerk of Courts in Hamilton County, Ohio, and was the Republican nominee for Ohio Secretary of State in 2006.

 

Hartmann’s plan might have succeeded if the outgoing Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell hadn’t been sued in March of 2006 for exposing thousands of Ohio residents Social Security numbers on the Secretary’s website. Blackwell was making a bid for the Ohio Governor’s position at the time.

 

Hartmann responded to accusations that he would be equally soft on identity theft in a press release dated the following July, “My experience fighting identity theft as Hamilton County clerk of courts makes me uniquely qualified to advocate on this issue.”

 

Hartmann’s fate was sealed when the Dayton Daily News (DDN) nailed the Republican candidate for his 'willful negligence and foot-dragging in not protecting sensitive personal information on the Hamilton county website, despite being told by law enforcement officials and private citizens of what might happen if he didn't act in a timely manner'.

 

The DDN documented that it took Hartmann three years after taking the clerk’s office to take down sensitive information from his predecessor’s website despite being prodded by citizens and local law enforcement officers and sued over the records. So flagrant were his violations, that not only did the site experience about 400,000 hits a month, but in 2002 it got the attention of the New York Times as well.

 

Democratic candidate Jennifer L. Brunner produced a plan that promised to stop the outsourcing of confidential information to private contractors and return the responsibility of protecting Ohioans’ private information to Secretary of State employees. She ran televised ads explaining her plan and showing over 100 victims of identity theft entering a courtroom to testify against the alleged criminals who had used Hartman's website to steal their identities. Brunner won the election by a margin of 55%.

 

Last year, voters punished Blackwell for his online security breach as secretary of state. Blackwell, a republican hopeful in the Ohio gubernatorial race, received only 36.65% of the vote against democratic candidate Ted Strickland’s 60.54%. Thus making Strickland  the first Democrat in 16 years to win the Ohio governor's seat.

 

In a free society, ignoring the wishes of the people has always been a dangerous proposition. The constitution promises each of us that we shall be secure in our persons, houses, papers, and effects. In an age of rampant identity theft, elected officials who breach our security via the Internet may be committing political suicide in the 21st century.

 

The voters were talking in 2006. Were you listening?

 

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