>Checks on ‘Joe’ more extensive than first acknowledged
Tax, welfare info also sought on McCain ally
Wednesday, October 29, 2008 8:05 PM
By Randy Ludlow
A state agency has revealed that its checks of computer systems for potential information on “Joe the Plumber” were more extensive than it first acknowledged.
Helen Jones-Kelley, director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, disclosed today that computer inquiries on Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher were not restricted to a child-support system.
The agency also checked Wurzelbacher in its computer systems to determine whether he was receiving welfare assistance or owed unemployment compensation taxes, she wrote.
Jones-Kelley made the revelations in a letter to Ohio Senate President Bill M. Harris, R-Ashland, who demanded answers on why state officials checked out Wurzelbacher.
Harris called the multiple records checks “questionable” and said he awaits more answers. “It’s kind of like Big Brother is looking in your pocket,” he said.
If state employees run checks on every person listed in newspaper stories as buying a business, “it must take a lot of people a lot of time to run these checks,” he said. “Where do you draw the line?”
The checks were run after the news media reported that Wurzelbacher was considering buying a plumbing business with more than $250,000 in annual income, Jones-Kelley wrote.
“Given our understanding that Mr. Wurzelbacher had publicly indicated that he had the means to purchase a substantial business enterprise, ODJFS, consistent with past departmental practice, checked confidential databases ,” she wrote.
“Not surprisingly, when a person behind in child support payments or receiving public assistance is receiving significant media attention which suggests that the person appears to have available financial resources, the Department risks justifiable criticism if it fails to take note and respond,” Jones-Kelley wrote.
The results of the searches were not publicly released and remain confidential, she wrote. Wurzelbacher has said he is not involved in a child-support case and has not purchased any business.
Jones-Kelley wrote that the checks were “well-meaning,” but misinterpreted amid the heated final weeks of a presidential election.
Wurzelbacher became a household name when Republican presidential hopeful John McCain frequently referred to “Joe the Plumber” during his Oct. 15 debate with Democrat nominee Barack Obama. The checks began the next day.
Wurzelbacher, who has endorsed and campaigned for McCain, had been caught on videotape challenging Obama about his tax proposals during a campaign visit to “Joe’s” neighborhood in the Toledo suburb of Holland.
Republicans have painted the checks on Wurzelbacher as a politically motivated bid by Democrats to dig up dirt and discredit the McCain ally. The Obama campaign has said it has no ties to the checks and supports investigations.
The administration of Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland has said the information was not improperly shared and that there were no political motives behind the checks.
The Dispatch has uncovered four uses of state computer systems to access personal information on Wurzelbacher, including the child-support check authorized by Jones-Kelley.
She said on Monday that her department frequently runs checks for any unpaid child support obligations “when someone is thrust quickly into the public spotlight.”
Republican legislators have challenged Jones-Kelley’s reason for checking on Wurzelbacher as “frightening” and flimsy.
Jones-Kelly also has denied any connections between the computer checks on Wurzelbacher and her support for Obama. She donated the maximum $2,500 this year to the Obama campaign.
Ohio Inspector General Thomas P. Charles is investigating whether the child-support check on Wurzelbacher was legal.