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Social Security number, medical records found in municipal Dumpster

Branches of county and state government in Pinellas have improperly disposed of documents that contain citizens' sensitive personal information.

Pinellas clerk of the circuit court auditors released a report Friday that says child abuse records, juvenile defendant information, Social Security numbers, medical information and privileged attorney-client documents turned up in Dumpsters at several government complexes.

Hundreds of documents were involved, the report states, and the inappropriate disposals may violate state and federal law.

"Citizens are forced to provide confidential information to the government," said Bob Melton, the clerk's audit director. "So the government has a huge responsibility to ensure that information is protected. And in these cases, it was not."

Melton said there is no evidence any information fell into the wrong hands, though the risk is certainly there. And there's no indication, Melton said, that the improper disposals were intentional. He's urging county leaders to educate employees on proper procedures for getting rid of sensitive material.

Finding the documents in the Dumpsters would not have been a problem, Melton said, if they had been shredded.

The report stems from a scheduled audit, not a complaint or tip. Early this year, auditors visited Dumpsters at 13 government complexes. At several, trash haulers arrived first and the auditors found empty bins.

Auditors collected trash from the Criminal Justice Center, which houses arms of the state and local court system, the county's emergency medical services and ambulance complex, the Sheriff's Office headquarters, the Clearwater Courthouse complex and health and human services offices.

Though auditors were in a county van, rooting in trash is unusual, Melton said, and the investigators expected to be questioned. But only at the Clearwater Courthouse, he said, were they stopped by security.

Assistant County Administrator Mark Woodard said efforts are under way to make sure employees follow procedures to meet state and federal disposal requirements. It's an "absolute fiduciary and legal responsibility," to do so, he said.

The government departments whose Dumpsters were searched are subject to the same state and federal laws regarding release of personal information. But each has its own procedures to ensure compliance.

Ken Burke, as clerk of the circuit court, both oversees the audit division and departments that could have been responsible for some of the inappropriate disposals. While his office will be more vigilant, Burke said, it's tough to determine from the report where disposed documents came from.

At the Criminal Justice Center, for instance, the public defender, sheriff, state attorney, judiciary and clerk use a single set of Dumpsters.

Sheriff Jim Coats said that unless presented with specific documents that his office dumped, he could not comment. And 6th Judicial Circuit spokesman Ron Stuart said Chief Judge Robert Morris had not seen the report and was also unable to comment.

"Considering what we found," Melton said, "I think it would move every county official to look at their disposal procedures."

The reports' findings don't surprise Fred Thomas, founder of Pinch-a-Penny and a former Clearwater city commissioner. In recent years, Thomas sued the county property appraiser multiple times after he and his wife's homestead applications were denied because they refused to provide Social Security numbers.

The couple, who lost their legal battles, was concerned the private information would not be protected. That happens too often, said Thomas, who estimated his legal fees at close to a half-million dollars.

"That's why I made the fight," Thomas said of the report.

Staff writer Lorri Helfand contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at 445-4166 or vansant@sptimes.com.

Social Security number, medical records found in municipal Dumpster 11/07/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 11, 2008 7:03pm]
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