The Washington Post reports that President Obama’s nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration had been censured for misusing government database information for personal reasons. When he was an FBI agent in 1988, Erroll Southers “asked a co-worker’s husband who worked for the San Diego Police Department to run a background check on his ex-wife’s boyfriend.” This is a clear case of misuse of insider access to violate individual privacy, where an insider is able to avoid security precautions and access data gathered for other purposes.
I called the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to request a copy of the written responses that the Post said were released Tuesday by the committee. I was told that I had to come into the committee’s office in person to view the responses; there is no other option for viewing the published responses to Congressional questions made of a government nominee. This is a ridiculous action and antithetical to open government.
In written responses to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Post reports Erroll Southers said:
“The boyfriend had moved in with my ex-wife, from whom I had separated only a short time before, and I was concerned for the safety of her and my infant son, who was also living with them,” he wrote. “The database search revealed an outstanding warrant for his arrest, about which I informed my ex-wife.”
“I recognize that it was a mistake to have used my official connections to investigate the matter,” Southers said.
This is certainly not the first case of law enforcement officials abusing their insider access to government databases to violate individual privacy. In May, the Boston Globe reported that the Massachusetts state auditor has found misuse by law enforcement officials of the criminal records system. Police pried into the personal data of Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, actor Matt Damon, Boston Celtics player Paul Pierce and others. In January, a New York City police sergeant pleaded guilty “to illegally entering a federal database and giving information from a terrorist watch list to an acquaintance to use in a child-custody case in Canada,” reported the New York Times.
In 2005, a woman wrote to a newspaper criticizing a Florida sheriff as being too fat for police work and condemning his agency’s use of stun guns. Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary ordered staffers to use state driver’s license records to find the home address of his critic, and he sent a letter to her home. The woman said she felt intimidated by his actions. Later, he sent her a letter of apology. But, when questioned, Beary said he did not believe his actions were illegal. Beary thought it was within his job duties to answer a critic. He could have done so through a published letter to the newspaper, but chose this method instead.
I don’t know how a censure would affect an FBI agent’s career. The Post reports, “FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said he could not comment on [Southers’] case for privacy reasons. A letter of censure could be filed for many reasons and would not necessary limit an FBI agent’s advancement, depending on the offense and mitigating circumstances, he said.”
This seems like a light punishment, considering these cases of government employees’ improper use of access privileges:
- In September, a former police dispatcher was sentenced to six months in jail for misusing “a police database for personal reasons — including checking up on the suitor of his girlfriend’s daughter,” reported the Chicago Breaking News Center. “He was also fined, placed on 30 months’ probation and ordered to pay $4,600 in restitution to his former employer.”
- In December, Illinois employees were suspended for three or more days without pay for improperly accessing Obama’s driving records.
- In January, a State Department contractor was sentenced to 12 months of probation and 50 hours of community service for improperly accessing the passport files of 200 people, including Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain.