SLO County goofs, then threatens the messenger
August 21, 2015
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
The head of the San Luis Obispo County Department of Social Services threatened a citizen with prosecution for revealing a privacy breach caused by county workers.
Last month, a county social services worker forwarded an email to a group list. The email contained an Arroyo Grande woman’s medical records, as well as her birth date, address and social security number.
Kevin Rice, a local activist who heads a yearly beach cleanup, subscribes to a county email list called Beach Monitoring. A county official claims there are only 19 individuals on the list, but Rice said he believes the list contains dozens and possibly more than 100 personal emails.
Rice said multiple county departments, including social services, public health and administration, regularly inadvertently send confidential information in emails to everyone on the Beach Monitoring list. The emails disclosed information ranging from medical records to county finances.
Rice warned the county multiple times about the privacy breaches. Then on July 21, Rice copied members of the media in an email to the county about the medical records disclosure.
“This is hardly the first time I’ve received privileged county emails due to this same error,” Rice stated in the email. “Yes, it really has happened several times. I’ve let you know each time. This time I’m including the media to motivate a fix. You really should come up with a better process.”
In response, Social Services Director Lee Collins sent an email to the Beach Monitoring list acknowledging a mistake occurred.
Collins responded to Rice by telling him he may have committed a misdemeanor. Collins later said the case was forwarded to the district attorney’s office.
Collins contends his staff inadvertently sent out medical records, which he said was not a crime. But, Rice purposely forwarded the email, which may have constituted a crime, Collins said.
“Your deliberate publication of that information to multiple media outlets places you in a precarious position insofar as Welfare & Institutions Code 10850 is concerned, wherein it provides that such disclosure could represent a misdemeanor offense.” Collins wrote to Rice. “It is my personal recommendation to you that you consult with legal counsel to determine if your actions may have placed you in legal jeopardy.”
Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham said the DA’s office received notification from Collins that a confidentiality breach occurred and that members of the public had mistakenly received a private email. The district attorney’s office chose not to file charges, though.
“Our office inquired into the facts and is taking no action,” Cunningham said.
Collins additionally sent an email to the three members of the media whom Rice notified about the privacy breach. Collins ordered them to delete the records.
CalCoastNews publisher Karen Velie, one of the media members who received Rice’s notification, also received a threat from Collins. The social services director stated Velie must destroy the confidential information or risk joining Rice as a target in a criminal probe.
“Your failure to do so could implicate you — as well as him — in this ongoing investigation,” Collins wrote.
At the time, Collins and the county government were also threatening Velie over her reporting on a Child Welfare Services (CWS) case. In that case, CWS placed a girl with a foster father who allegedly raped her repeatedly over a period of six years. In removing the children from their birth parents, the county utilized a psychologist on probation after patients reported the doctor had them give him oral sex during sessions and performed exorcisms.
The county claimed Velie and CalCoastNews reporter Dan Blackburn also violated the Welfare and Institutions Code by reporting on juvenile court records and documents. In a letter to Velie and Blackburn, Debra Barriger, a county attorney, ordered them to destroy the records and stop referencing the documents.
Barriger also stated unauthorized use of the records constituted a misdemeanor. Barriger threatened “court intervention.”
CalCoastNews Editor Bill Loving responded by saying confidentiality is not absolute and that Velie and Blackburn broke no laws. Loving also questioned the county’s priorities.
“I cannot understand why the county is threatening CalCoastNews rather than looking into the process that put three children into the home of a man accused of being a child rapist,” Loving said.
Collins did not respond to an email requesting comment.
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