The state worker who unwittingly ran an improper child-support check on the man known as Joe the Plumber told lawmakers yesterday that a deputy director later "dictated" how she was supposed to cover it up.
Vanessa Niekamp, an administrator for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services' Office of Child Support and a 15-year state employee, said that when Deputy Director Doug Thompson came into her office, "He appeared very upset, his neck was bright red, and he was shaking. He closed my door."
Thompson told her she must write an e-mail to the agency's information-security officer, and then "dictated word for word" what she wrote, Niekamp said. He also reminded her that she could be fired at any time, she said.
"Within an hour, I took the rest of the day off -- again using my vacation time -- and went directly to the office of the inspector general. I told them everything I knew about what happened."
Niekamp took another day of vacation yesterday to testify before the House State Government and Elections Committee about legislation that calls for the firing of any unclassified state employee who improperly accesses confidential personal information.
Rep. Shannon Jones, a Springboro Republican sponsoring House Bill 648, said she introduced the measure because she thinks that high-ranking officials such as Job and Family Services Director Helen Jones-Kelley weren't punished enough.
"The systematic misuse of government databases and the governor's woeful under-reaction to state government workers engaging in this outrageous behavior make House Bill 648 necessary," she told the committee.
Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, placed Jones-Kelley on a one-month unpaid suspension last month after Inspector General Thomas P. Charles found she authorized the check on Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber, for no legitimate government purpose.
Thompson also was suspended for a month after Charles found that he participated in directing the check and instructed Niekamp to send a deceptive e-mail about it. Three others received lesser punishment.
The checks came the day after Republican presidential nominee John McCain talked about Wurzelbacher in his final presidential debate Oct. 15 with Democrat Barack Obama.
The next day, Niekamp said, Assistant Deputy Director Carri Brown asked her to check the state child-support computer system for Wurzelbacher.
Brown "claimed that he had contacted our agency with a dispute about how much child support he owed," Niekamp said.
Niekamp, who did not recognize the name, said Brown took some notes, thanked her and left.
A week later, Thompson came to her office with a different explanation -- that he, Jones-Kelley and assistant director Fred Williams had requested the check.
"Doug told me that the person Carri had asked me to look up was Joe the Plumber -- the one who was talked about in the national news. He said he needed my help explaining something," Niekamp said.
"Doug then told me I must write an e-mail to our agency's information-security officer to explain why the file had been accessed. He turned my computer screen so he could see it and dictated word for word what he wanted me to write. ...
"He then told me that we needed to make sure that we answer questions about what happened the same way, so that our versions were not different from each other. Before he said that, he reminded me that I was an unclassified employee -- which, as you may know, is someone who can be fired without cause."
Niekamp said she knew the checks were improper because the staff undergoes training and must read and sign a form explaining when they can access confidential and personal information maintained by the department.
"Both Doug and Carri can access the (child-support) system and could have accessed a file without my involvement," Niekamp said. "To this day, I do not understand why they asked me to look at this information when they could have easily done this themselves."