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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

An FOI Request in Ohio Raises Issues of Anonymity...

This is a most interesting situation, in which a request for an anonymous ethics database gives rise to concerns about the privacy of individuals on said hotline...but aren't they anonymous?

Ohio University officials have said they felt they had to stop taking anonymous tips on suspected ethics violations after OU's student newspaper obtained records of the tips through a public-documents request.

The student who was editor of the OU Post at the time called that decision "very strange," and suggested it shows a disappointing lack of faith in the paper's judgment.

"It's kind of sad that because of a public-records request, they quit using the (system), which seemed to be doing a pretty good job," said Sean Gaffney.

As editor of the Summer Post, Gaffney oversaw a request to OU for records from the university's EthicsPoint tip line. The program accepts anonymous tips about alleged employee wrongdoing at OU, both over the phone and online.

On Thursday, OU announced it had stopped accepting reports, both on its EthicsPoint site and over the phone, because of "concerns over individual privacy."

OU President Roderick McDavis made the decision Aug. 24 at the recommendation of Internal Auditor Kathryn Chambers Gilmore, one day after the university turned over records from the system to the Post.

Gilmore argued Friday that it defeats the purpose of an anonymous tip line if records of the tips - including allegations that turn out to be baseless - can become public through a records request. However, she said, after meeting with the Ohio Attorney General's office, OU attorneys realized that the Post had state public-records law firmly on its side.

"We were told that we had to provide all of the records," Gilmore said, with the only exceptions being material protected by federal laws covering student records and medical records.

The Post's records request was "very broad," according to Gilmore. "It asked pretty much for all records."

There was precedent available in an earlier request by the Columbus Dispatch for records from Ohio State University's similar tip system. That paper ran a story Aug. 7, reporting that since OSU started its tip line in 2006, it had helped the university uncover 19 cases of wrongdoing, while generating 107 tips that turned out to be unsubstantiated.

OU's system began in February 2006. Its best-publicized result came in July when OU announced the resignation of an associate athletics director found to have misused a university purchasing card. That case came to light through an anonymous tip.

More here.

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