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Strickland praised for data theft response


COLUMBUS — Gov. Ted Strickland’s response to the theft of a computer storage device containing information on thousands of state workers and Ohio citizens has won mostly praise from experts in communications and crisis management.
Strickland, a Democrat who took office in January, announced on June 15 that a computer storage tape had been stolen from an intern’s car.
The tape contained information on taxpayers who had not cashed state income tax refund checks issued in 2005, 2006 and through May 29, 2007. It also included their names and Social Securty numbers.
In addition, the tape includes the names and Social Security numbers of lottery winners who have yet to cash their winning tickets and 2,488 Ohioans who have yet to cash checks for unclaimed funds payments. It also holds the names and bank account numbers for approximately 650 to 1,000 electronic funds transfers that weren’t completed because they were bounced back by banking institutions.
Previously, it was revealed the device contained the names and Social Security numbers of all 64,000 state employees, names and case numbers of the state’s 84,000 welfare recipients, and the names and federal tax identification number of vendors that receive payroll deduction payments from the state — about 1,200 records. Sixteen of those records contain banking information.
Other information on the device includes bank account information about the state’s school districts and Medicaid providers, and information about 53,797 people enrolled in the state’s pharmacy benefits management program and the names and Social Security numbers of about 75,532 dependents.
Strickland’s quick and thorough revelations about what was on the device are the best way to handle such an event, experts said. Strickland held news conferences almost daily for a week as more data were found to be on the tape.
“There was absolutely no negative consequence of any part of our response, save for the delay in notifying the Highway Patrol,” Strickland said, possibly allowing the trail to grow cold. He said he wasn’t notified until four days after the device was stolen and state data managers were investigating.
Steve Wilson, president of Wilson Group Communications, a Columbus-based crisis-management consulting firm, said that once Strickland was informed about the tape, he acted correctly to protect state workers.
“The first thing you do in a situation like this is find out what exactly happened, how widespread is the damage, what were the flaws in the system, take corrective action and quickly notify the people affected,” Wilson said.
Strickland hasn’t sustained much political fallout because the practice of a critical backup computer tape home with employees — and entrusting interns with it — was begun under Gov. Bob Taft.
However, Mark Weaver, a GOP consultant who teaches crisis communications at Ohio State University and the University of Akron, said it appeared at first that there not enough attention paid to what was on the tape and it took Strickland too long to go public.
“When something like this happens, you must respond like it’s a five-alarm fire,” Weaver said.
Weaver did credit Strickland for not publicly not blaming others.
“It was smart to take responsibility for the mistake and not try to blame the poor intern who should never have had responsibility for the tape,” he said.

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