State director may have unlawfully searched records

A state agency director facing allegations she used state time and resources for political activities in support of Barack Obama has made roughly 15 out-of-state trips in office, records released Thursday show.

But none of the travel records suggest that Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Helen Jones-Kelley took trips on state time or used state resources to engage in improper political activity. Jones-Kelley is under investigation by the state Inspector General for allegedly using a state computer or e-mail account to assist in political fundraising.

The state also is investigating whether she improperly authorized the agency to gather personal information on a northwest Ohio man who became known as " Joe the Plumber " during the presidential campaign. She has been placed on paid administrative leave while the investigations are conducted.

Jones-Kelley has said the records check on plumber Samuel J. Wurzelbacher was prompted by his public statements that he had an outstanding tax lien. Wurzelbacher told Obama during a campaign stop that he didn't agree with his tax plan because he felt it would hurt his chances at buying a plumbing business. The McCain campaign used Wurzelbacher's statements to try to stir up opposition to Obama's plans.

The travel records show that Jones-Kelley's most frequent destination was Washington, D.C., for conferences and congressional hearings involving child welfare and other social services topics. Other destinations included New York City, Tucson, Ariz., Chicago and Long Beach, Calif., also for meetings and conferences.

Many Republican state lawmakers were upset about the release of Wurzelbacher's personal information. They sent Jones-Kelley letters expressing disapproval of her public statements about the rationale for digging into Wurzelbacher's background, and demanded that she be more forthcoming.

On Thursday, House Speaker Jon Husted of Kettering said the GOP is crafting legislation that would strengthen laws about state use of personal data, and increase penalties for violations.

He said the Inspector General's report would be helpful, but that the outcome of the investigation wasn't needed to examine whether current laws were adequate to prevent the future improper release of personal information.

"One of the things that we cherish (is) our individual right to free speech," Husted said. "To think that you give your opinion and then somebody in government is going to dig up dirt and try to discredit you is a scary thing, and so we need to make sure that there are proper protections in place to avoid that."

Gov. Ted Strickland is willing to look at a proposal, but he doesn't think the Legislature should rush to create a law without the benefit of the investigation findings, said spokesman Keith Dailey. He also said the investigation is focused on accessing records, not disclosing them, because no sensitive information was disclosed, he said.

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