Columns » Max Brantley

Your government at work





• After the Times and then the Democrat-Gazette reported that some old real estate records newly online occasionally contained Social Security records, it took Attorney General Dustin McDaniel barely 48 hours to threaten to sue Pulaski County Clerk Pat O'Brien.

This is a national can of worms. Social Security numbers are required so many places — credit cards, movie rentals, etc. —  that they are relatively easy to obtain. Scattershot efforts to limit access to public records — where the numbers happen to also be hard to find — isn't a comprehensive approach to the problem. The better approach is a broader one, beginning with ways to limit their use as a private business identification tool.

In the meanwhile, a touch of thoughtfulness could be useful. No such luck with McDaniel, who has a penchant for headline chasing. It is a wild stretch to say O'Brien violated a 2005 law about “misappropriation” of Social Security numbers.  The law says it is a violation to “intentionally communicate” the numbers. You could just as easily argue that  O'Brien violates the law by providing public access at the courthouse.

O'Brien worked out a deal with McDaniel. The real estate records were taken off-line and his office will redact numbers before the documents are put back on-line. Good solution. Still, it is tricky business when public pressure leads to selective censoring of public records — particularly for Internet users only — and shouldn't be entered lightly. It suggests that advantages should be given to those with the time and money to get to the courthouse. Next question: Should the entire body of civil and criminal court filings also be removed from the web and courthouse because an isolated handful might contain Social Security numbers?

Noted: McDaniel also jumped early into the fight to knock down Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban. It was a case with NO application in Arkansas, but it was electoral red meat. He also jumped — pushed by an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette front-page investigation — into the case of a North Arkansas land swindler. By contrast, he waited more than a year to go after the powerful payday lending lobby, despite the obvious constitutional violations by these bloodsucking scofflaws.

• Conservation groups last week asked the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission to say that carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is a contaminant. The Commission quickly adopted an order drafted by industry to squelch the idea.

Commissioner Thomas Schueck, a steel fabricator, led the derision of the conservationists. He mockingly suggested to one greenie that he should obtain an air permit since he exhales a couple of pounds of carbon dioxide each day. Hardy har har. What isn't funny is Schueck's conflict of interest. He holds both air and water discharge permits for his industries. Any commission action that bears on clean air and water is an action in which he has a personal stake. Gov. Mike Beebe, who stood mute on the carbon dioxide issue, should tell his pal Schueck to have the good grace to at least stifle himself. Maybe Schueck thinks he bought a right to his public belligerence.  Schueck and kin contributed more than $90,000 to Beebe's election campaign and the Democratic Party of Arkansas in 2006.

• I wrote last week about the state's practice of secrecy about corporate welfare.  I'm happy to update that the Arkansas Economic Development Commission under director Maria Haley broke with past practice by providing a copy of the state agreement with Hewlett Packard for a new facility in Conway. It was censored so that precise payments and penalties weren't revealed, but the release still constituted an improvement.


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