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Ohio agency director put on leave amid 'plumber' probe

By The Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio's governor has placed on leave an agency director who was questioned over why state computers were used to find personal information on a man who became known as "Joe the Plumber" during the presidential campaign.

Gov. Ted Strickland's spokesman, Keith Dailey, said the governor's decision to place Helen Jones-Kelly on leave was not connected to the record checks of Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, the Toledo-area man known as Joe the Plumber. Wurzelbacher became a centerpiece in the final weeks of the presidential campaign, and Jones-Kelley has acknowledged that records on him held by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services that she directs were reviewed.

Strickland's Nov. 7 statement said Jones-Kelley was placed on paid administrative leave because of the possibility a state computer or state e-mail account was used to assist in political fundraising.

Ohio Republican Party Deputy Chairman Kevin DeWine said in a statement released on Nov. 7 that the Democratic governor's administration has apparently turned the state government into a "political party machine."

"The Strickland administration has already demonstrated a profound and reckless disregard for personal privacy, and now they're apparently abusing government resources to raise political contributions," DeWine said.

The governor's statement provided no details on the political fundraising in question.

In the matter of Wurzelbacher, State Inspector Tom Charles is investigating whether Jones-Kelley improperly authorized the search of the Toledo man's records. Jones-Kelley had said the searches were part of routine checks her agency conducts when someone suddenly emerges in the limelight.

She told state Senate President Bill Harris in a letter that records were checked because Wurzelbacher had indicated he might buy a business and it was determined he that owed back taxes. She wrote that the department wanted to make sure appropriate actions were taken if he owed child support, received public assistance or owed unemployment compensation taxes.

The records were never made public or released to the news media.

The state employee who ran the computer background check on Joe the Plumber to see whether he had any outstanding child support payments said she thought the check was being performed at Wurzelbacher's request. Jones-Kelley said she approved the check just after the Oct. 15 debate between Republican presidential nominee John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama — now president-elect.

As Wurzelbacher's profile was elevated in McCain's campaign, criticism over the Ohio search rose to a fever pitch.

Republican lawmakers — including Harris — questioned Jones-Kelley's actions in publicly released letters. State Rep. Shannon Jones called the records review an outrage. State Rep. Bill Batchelder, a former judge, urged Strickland to put Jones-Kelly on leave until Charles' investigation was complete.

"No Ohioan should be subject to a 'witch hunt' on the whim of a public official," he said in a statement.

Strickland appointed Jones-Kelley, who was running the Montgomery County Department of Jobs and Family Services, to lead the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services in December 2006.

Jones-Kelley, an attorney, served for more than a decade as executive director of the Montgomery County Children Service Department. When the department merged with the county's Jobs and Family Services department earlier in 2006, she was named director of the new merged agency.

Public views news media as plumbing the depths for info on Joe
Journalism expert says reporters' requests for public records on Ohio plumber were appropriate; meanwhile, state inspector general probes whether other info was improperly accessed. 11.04.08

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