- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2003

RICHMOND (AP) — The Virginia Employment Commission is tightening access to its database on Virginia workers after an audit showed that the family law firm of Rep. Eric Cantor performed an exorbitant number of record searches, state officials said.

Local governments or their agents that use the VEC database to collect fines and penalties will no longer be able to access a worker’s wages through the system, according to new guidelines that take effect in July.

Information will be released only when it is absolutely required for a specific purpose. For example, the Division of Child Support Enforcement will still be given wage information, as will law enforcement agencies when it is needed for an investigation.

The database contains information on all the state’s 3.5 million wage earners. The VEC currently allows workers’ compensation, social services, law enforcement and local government officials to use the database to obtain information that would help with debt collection or to monitor child-support payments.

James N. Ellenberger, deputy commissioner of the VEC, said the 300 government agencies that use the database are required to complete a form identifying the employee who wants to use the database and the reason for obtaining the information.

But Mr. Ellenberger said VEC officials were surprised by an unusually high number of inquirers on the database during an audit last year. While most localities only look up a few thousand names in a typical year, the law firm Cantor & Cantor made 736,000 searches during a 12-month period in Henrico County. Henrico has a population of 262,000.

“I think about the numbers, and it’s pretty shocking,” Mr. Ellenberger said. “We have no idea what they used this for and it’s offensive. … Anybody would be concerned because, if it happened in Henrico County, I would be hard-pressed to say that it hasn’t happened elsewhere.”

Mr. Ellenberger said the Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office had an agreement with VEC that one person would be granted access to the state database, but instead, access was given to the entire law firm. Henrico County employed the law firm to collect overdue fines and penalties.

After VEC brought its concerns to Commonwealth’s Attorney Wade Kizer, officials immediately agreed to suspend the law firm’s access to the system.

Eddie Cantor, head of the law firm and father of the Virginia congressman, said he was surprised by the number of record searches his law firm conducted. He estimated that he checks 10,000 to 12,000 records each month to see whether people the firm is trying to collect money from have gotten a job.

“We just try harder, I guess,” he said.

The law firm is seeking to renew its contract with Henrico. A spokesman for the congressman had no comment other than to note that the Republican has not been a member of the law firm for three years.

Under state law, misuse of the VEC database is a Class 2 misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. But Mr. Ellenberger said no legal action is planned.

Duncan P. Reid, chief deputy to the Henrico prosecutor, said neither his office nor the Cantor firm has done anything improper.

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