Kaye Beach

Union faces ethics investigation in stunt to protest records request

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2010 at 9:47 am
Publication: The Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, OK)
Date: Saturday, March 6 2010

State Attorney General Drew Edmondson is looking into whether several state employees violated ethics rules prohibiting using state resources to engage in political activity.

Charlie Price, Edmondson’s spokesman, confirmed the investigation.

At the urging of their union, dozens of state workers on Friday used state phones and e-mail accounts to complain about an open records request by The Oklahoman for basic employee information.

The workers e-mailed and called the newspaper and a state administrator to protest the records request after the Oklahoma Public Employees Association sent a “call to action” e-mail to its members.

It is illegal for state employees to engage in political activity during work hours or with state equipment, including phones and computers, according to state ethics rules.

The Oklahoman has retained the correspondence showing state workers used state phones and e-mail accounts to fulfill their union’s request.

The workers were upset because the newspaper requested birth dates, salaries and other basic employment information for all state employees. The request remains unfulfilled. The birth dates of public employees have been deemed public information under a recent opinion by Edmondson.

Edmondson released the birth dates for his employees to the newspaper last month. Oklahoma City Public Schools this week released birth dates for more than 5,000 district employees in response to an open records request.

The newspaper requested the information to look into the backgrounds of state employees. Reporters nationwide routinely use public employees’ birth dates for background checks.

They are a crucial component of background checks because they help differentiate people with common names from one another.

Without birth dates, reporters cannot confirm whether felons, sex offenders, delinquent tax filers or other criminals are working for public agencies, which are funded by taxpayer dollars.

“For years we’ve routinely used dates of birth when doing stories that involve people with common names, to ensure that the right person is identified,” said Ed Kelley, editor of The Oklahoman.

“This isn’t identity theft. What it is is solid reporting to protect government workers and more importantly, the taxpayers who fund their salaries.”

Joe Worley, executive editor of the Tulsa World, said, “The Tulsa World has used date of birth information for years to accurately report stories about sex offenders and other serious offenders who were working in schools and government agencies.”

“This is a basic tool that journalists have used for years to assure that we are correctly reporting on governmental agencies. Our readers expect us to get our facts right and dates of birth are absolutely necessary for us to do our job.”

The Oklahoman received more than 100 e-mails Friday afternoon from state workers who said reporters shouldn’t have access to that information.

“I work for (Department of Human Services) and one of our big deals is to keep our clients (sic) info confidential. I don’t see us, as state employees, being any different,” LaFonda Haws wrote in an e-mail.

Public state payroll records show Haws is a social services specialist with DHS.

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