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All records are public, but some are more public than others

April 20th, 2010  |  Matt Pavich

This Orwellian sentiment appears to be the governing philosophy of the State of Oklahoma, which, according to recent reports, has made millions of dollars selling information gleaned from motor vehicle records, even while state legislators have sponsored a bill that would exempt government worker birth dates from the state’s Open Records Act.

The Oklahoman has reported that the Sooner State has made approximately $65 million over the past five years by selling millions of motor vehicle records to insurance companies, employment screening services and other entities, records that include birthdates and other personal information.

That’s one creative way to survive the recent economic downturn.

But Oklahoma may very well shut down one potential stream of revenue from this information cash cow: its own employees.

In a somewhat unusual move for the state that bars employers from prohibiting guns in their workplaces, two Oklahoma legislators have sponsored a bill that would shield government employees’ personal information from the gleaming eyes of the aforementioned entities. The reason? Safety, says the Oklahoma Public Employees Association (OPEA). The OPEA applauded the passage of Senate Bill 1753, saying that the era of identity theft and fraud made the move essential. Others have claimed that the move is necessary to protect public employees from those who would do them harm.

So, essentially, the Oklahoma legislature will protect public employees from the prying eyes of the public, but not from the weapons of their own co-workers.

The logic, or lack thereof, is all a bit confusing, and it becomes even more so when one considers the allegation made by the Oklahoman that the OPEA has, during the last year, received access to confidential public employee information. According to the paper, since House Bill 2245 became effective in June, 2009, two spreadsheets containing the names and addresses of all state employees were mailed to direct mail companies hired by the OPEA as part of the union’s organizing efforts.

The connective tissue between the two, seemingly incompatible, bills, is Representative Randy Terrill, a Republican whom the union named its 2009 Legislator of the Year. Representative Terrill not only pushed the bill that gave the union its access, he is also the house sponsor of Senate Bill 1753.

It’s a curious exception that Representative Terrill has carved out for the OPEA and it’s one that citizens of Oklahoma, who might like to know more about the people that run their state, have every right to question.