Government officials who rifle through your personal details held in government databases apparently should have little to fear in the way of punishment, according to a federal judge in Ohio.
U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley has dismissed a complaint brought against Ohio state officials who hunted for details about “Joe the Plumber” when the working man confronted then-candidate Barack Obama during his campaign for the presidency in 2008.
The civil-rights lawsuit was filed by Judicial Watch on behalf of Joe Wurzelbacher, aka “Joe the Plumber,” against state officials who, reportedly in their pursuit of support for Obama, had state databases searched for information about Wurzelbacher.
However, Marbley dismissed the action, ruling there was no real damage to Wurzelbacher when officials searched police, social services and other databases for his details.
“The implications of this court decision are frightening,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. “Essentially the court has said that government officials can feel free to rifle through the private files of citizens without fear of being held accountable in court.”
He continued, “How can the American people feel comfortable exercising their First Amendment rights when they may be subject to secret searches by politicized bureaucrats in return? It is unconscionable that high-ranking state officials pried into confidential government files to punish Joe Wurzelbacher for asking a simple question.
“Justice was not served with this decision. Judicial Watch will most certainly file an appeal on behalf of Mr. Wurzelbacher,” Fitton said.
The case alleged Ohio officials violated Wurzelbacher’s constitutional rights by accessing – illegally – confidential information from the state’s official archives of information.
The case accused Helen Jones-Kelley, Fred Williams and Doug Thompson, three top officials at the state Department of Job and Family Services at the time of the database searches, of being politically motivated in their searches for Wurzelbacher’s details.
It was on Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008, when Wurzelbacher was tossing a football with his son in the front yard of his home. Obama and his entourage appeared on the street in front of his home and Wurzelbacher, working with a small plumbing business, asked Obama about the impact of his tax plans on small businesses.
Obama responded that he wanted to “spread the wealth.”
“It’s not that I want to punish your success; I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you that they’ve got a chance at success, too. I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody,” Obama said in a sound bite that has been replayed ever since by critics.
The subsequent investigation by the office of the inspector general for the state of Ohio found only four days after Wurzelbacher’s encounter with Obama, the defendants held a meeting to discuss him.
After the meeting, Judicial Watch said, they authorized and instructed agency workers to search confidential office databases for his information. The report said all three are believed to have been supporting Obama’s campaign.
The inspector general’s report said, “Our investigation determined that there were 18 separate records checks conducted on Wurzelbacher following the Oct. 15, 2008, presidential debate. Five were conducted in response to media requests for information and eight were conducted by various agencies without any legitimate business purpose.”
Records searched were the state Department of Jobs and Family Services, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Taxation and others.
“Jones-Kelley’s authorization to search three confidential agency databases … was improper, and her use of state e-mail resources to engage in political activity was also improper,” the inspector general’s report said.
The report noted Jones-Kelley explained the information was searched because Wurzelbacher was “thrust into the spotlight.”
“None of the justifications provided by Jones-Kelley meet any reasonable ‘agency function or purpose’ as required,” the report said.
But Marbley found that there wasn’t any “specific” injury beyond embarrassment, humiliation and emotional distress, and dismissed the complaint.