Within a few days of the “Joe the Plumber” incident, I was reading about his tax lien, that he lacked a full plumber’s license, and that

the plumber currently has an income level that would make him eligible for Obama’s proposed tax cut rather than the tax increase.

ABC news then found quotes a lot of other information that most of us would consider private: that he had a small tax lien posted against him,  but the clerk added that Mr. Wurzelbacher probably was unaware that it had been filed.

Question: was that tax clerk authorized to release that information? I am unfamiliar with Ohio state law, but it seems to me that this is confidential information that the clerk was not authorized to release.

But there was a second lien there too: A hospital has a small lien against him for an old hospital bill. (again, the amount was less than 2000 dollars).

Now you are getting into my area of expertise. I was once in private practice, and we sent small bills like this to collection agencies all the time.  Often the patients were ignoring the bills, figuring that it was covered by insurance.

But I happen to know where one can find this type of information (small tax liens, small liens for unpaid bills, and one’s salary), and a lot of the information such as salaray that was written about in numerous news stories: In a credit bureau report.

My interpretation is that someone in the press got hold of Mr. Wurzelbacher’s credit report, and then asked the clerk to confirm the liens against him that were listed.

The fact that later reports found small unpaid traffic fines in Texas only increases my suspicion that the press violated the law by accessing his credit report, with the aim of discrediting someone who started as a simple bystander who asked a question.

But you can’t just walk off the street and get information from a credit report. There are privacy laws that involve releasing that information.

Who is allowed to access your credit report?

  Those considering granting you credit.
Insurance companies.
Employers and potential employers (but only with your consent).
Companies with which you have a credit account for account monitoring purposes.
Those considering your application for a government license or benefit if the agency is required to consider your financial status.
A state or local child support enforcement agency.
Any government agency (limited usually to your name, address, former addresses, current and former employers).

Nope, ABC news isn’t in that list.

I have been waiting for the press to pick up these obvious facts, but apparently when the McCain campaign pointed them out, the McCain campaign was accused of lying.

But apparently the violation of Joe the Plumber’s privacy went a lot furthur than a rogue reporter getting a credit report, or catching a low level clerk off guard to spill the beans.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, there were quite a few inquiries about Mr. Wurzelbacher’s records, and many of them were placed by public officials to other public agencies about information that would come under government privacy rules.

Public records requested by The Dispatch disclose that information on Wurzelbacher’s driver’s license or his sport-utility vehicle was pulled from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles database three times shortly after the debate.

Information on Wurzelbacher was accessed by accounts assigned to the office of Ohio Attorney General Nancy H. Rogers, the Cuyahoga County Child Support Enforcement Agency and the Toledo Police Department.

If you read the article, the source of the inquiries was from official offices that denied that they pulled such information.

The clue that this was a “fishing job” to find negative information is clear, because someone officially snooped into his records to see if he owed back child support (he did not).

Mary Denihan, spokeswoman for the county agency, said the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services contacted the agency today and requested an investigation of the access to Wurzelbacher’s information. Cuyahoga County court records do not show any child-support cases involving Wurzelbacher.

So here we have a dangerous violation of privacy, not only by reporters asking clueless low level clerks, but by officials snooping, using government computers to access government data on a private citizen so they could leak it to the press for a political smear.

One is happy that the Columbus Dispatch is keeping an eye on the story.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at MakaipaBlog.

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