(Editor's note: This is the second and final part in a series on tranparency in Montana.)
HELENA - Earlier this year state officials released payroll information on thousands of state employees that they now claim in some cases contained confidential information that should not have been released.
Department of Administration Deputy Director Sheryl Olsonsaid payroll information was sent electronically to a state legislator in response to an information request. She said the legislator was later asked to scrub the information from his computer after officials discovered two issues that Olson would not disclose.
"We got surprised by the two issues we discovered," Olson told Montana Watchdog. "We have major problems that we need to address before we can even move forward with releasing salary data."
Asked what the two issues were, Olson declined to say.
"I can't talk about that," she said.
Quint Nyman, executive director of the Montana Public Employees Association, said information released contained job titles and names of people that work in covert operations in law enforcement.
"They did put out a notice that further use and distribution of that information was inappropriate," Nyman said. "It had the potential to expose people who work undercover."
Nyman said he was copied on an email sent out from the department of administration following the information release.
" They made it pretty clear it was inappropriate," Nyman said.
Rep. Tom Burnett, R-Bozeman, said he requested payroll information from theLegislative Servicesbranch for all state employees including first and last name, department, job description, and date of hire. He said the request was forwarded to the Department of Administration (DOA) and he received information from them a couple of weeks later.
Burnett said the electronic file he received listed hypothetical pay (base pay multiplied by 2,080 hours) that listed about 14,800 people. He said two to four weeks later he was contacted by Legislative Services and told the file in a few instances contained personnel information that should not have been released.
Burnett said he was told by a state official the information was a potential violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act(HIPAA) because it showed a few people who make wages who are patients in institutions such as the state hospital. HIPAA protects the privacy of people' health records and determines who can access their records and for what purpose.
Burnett said he was instructed to scrub it from his computer and to contact anyone he had sent the information to and ask them to do the same.
The lawmaker said he quickly complied with the request.
Burnett said he had sent the information to less than a couple of dozen people, but it had briefly been posted on rotundareport.com, a blog paid for by the Montana Republican Party.
Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, said Burnett gave them the list but it was never actually published as Burnett called back within a few hours and asked the information not be displayed.
Greenwood said, as a general rule, the GOP supports having "every single dime" of state spending being held accountable.
"If the state spent the money, the people deserve to know," he said.
State officials now say the information release did not violate HIPPA guidelines.
Olson said an attorney who works for the state reviewed the issue and determined that is was not a violation. Asked for a copy of the opinion, Olson said there was no written opinion.
"It was never put into writing. We had several meetings and it was just established," she said.
Burnett and Olson said he was never notified that the release did not constitute a HIPPA violation.
Burnett said the issue points to a larger concern about the need for greater transparency.
"It indicates the pressing need for the state to make salary information public in a methodical and careful way so that taxpayers who want to know how their money is being spent can find it out without causing problems such as happened here," Burnett said.
Olson said while the information release did not violate HIPAA laws, it still constituted an inappropriate release of employee information. Asked what document that determination was based on if it did not violate HIPAA laws, Olson said, "what's written in the Constitution."
"There's a balancing test of right to know versus right to privacy," Olson said. "We're still working on (this issue). It's not resolved."
Nyman said he initially heard from several union officials concerned with the issue.
"They were satisfied with the actions that were taken," Nyman said. "I think people need to be a lot more careful with what they're putting together and how it goes out."
While the public has a right to know information about their government, Nyman said there are also privacy concerns that have to be taken into account.
"There's a certain level of privacy that they should be allowed," he said. "I think the state has remedied it and taken care of it."
Montana Watchdog Editor Phil Drake contributed to this story.
(The Montana Watchdog operates as an independent, news-gathering organization that shares its research and findings with the public and other media organizations. Visit our website at www.montanawatchdog.org.)