COLUMBUS, OH (AP) - Ohio taxpayers are paying the bill for the legal defense of three former state employees sued by "Joe the Plumber," who claims they illegally accessed his personal information leading up to last fall's presidential election.
Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, who became a public figure after questioning then presidential candidate Barack Obama about his economic policies, filed a civil rights lawsuit against three state employees last March in U.S. District Court in Columbus.
Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Helen Jones-Kelley, Assistant Director Fred Williams and Deputy Director of Child Support Douglas Thompson were all named in the suit. Wurzelbacher said the employees accessed his personal information to retaliate against him for speaking out against Obama.
Jones-Kelley and Williams have resigned, while Thompson lost his job after Inspector General Tom Charles found that confidential personal information was improperly accessed. Attorney General Richard Cordray, a Democrat, said he is obligated to defend the employees because the lawsuit claims the illegal actions were done in the course of their work for the state. Cordray also said his representation would "minimize the taxpayer exposure" because the employees could go to the court of claims after the lawsuit is over and try to recover expenses made for private representation, which is generally expensive.
There are cases in which the attorney general isn't obligated to provide representation, such as when an employee was "acting manifestly outside the scope of his official employment or official responsibilities, with malicious purpose, in bad faith or in a wanton or reckless manner."
Cordray also said the law prohibits from discussing some of the information used to decide whether to represent the employees. The attorney general's decision has provided fodder for the 2010 campaign.
The two Republicans running to replace Cordray both said taxpayer money shouldn't be used to pay for the employees' defense.
"These people violated the privacy of an Ohio citizen and they did it, it would appear, to advance a partisan political campaign, and I think taxpayers will be shocked to find that their tax dollars are going to defend them," said former U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine. Delaware County Prosecutor David Yost said, "It's an outrageous use of taxpayer money to defend the invasion of a citizen's privacy."