- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A federal judge has ruled in favor of protecting the identities of U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission employees caught surfing for pornography on their government computers, saying privacy interests win over the public’s right to know.

In a ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Christine M. Arguello in Denver also called the public’s interest in the SEC employees’ identities “negligible, at best.”

“Disclosure in this case is not limited to the reputational embarrassment of having misused government property on official time, but rather extends to the embarrassment resulting from public knowledge that the conduct was of a sexual nature,” Judge Arguello, a 2008 appointee of President Bush, said in the 26-page ruling.

The ruling came in response to a lawsuit by a Denver law firm that sought to overturn an SEC decision to keep private the names and job descriptions of SEC supervisors caught searching for porn at work.

“I am obviously disappointed by the decision,” said Kevin D. Evans, partner and founding member of Steese, Evans & Frankel, the firm that filed the suit. “Essentially what this means is that as long as a government employee does not supervise too many people, they can abuse and misuse taxpayer money without fear of public disclosure.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) headquarters in Washington (Associated Press) **FILE**
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) headquarters in Washington (Associated Press) **FILE** more >

He also said he thought the SEC should refer cases involving lawyers to state bar commissions for disciplinary actions.

“I am equally offended because if a lawyer in private practice engaged in such activity and billed a client for it, which is the equivalent of what SEC lawyers did here to the taxpayers, the lawyer would be subject to disciplinary action against his or her license,” Mr. Evans said.

The SEC had no comment on the court decision and whether officials referred any lawyers to state bar commissions for discipline. On the pornography cases in general, SEC spokesman John Nester said, “We take misuse of government time and equipment seriously, and will continue to seek prompt and appropriate discipline against offenders.”

Earlier this year, SEC officials said in public statements to The Washington Times and other media outlets, as well as in correspondence to Congress, that they’ve cracked down on porn snoopers and enacted tougher measures to uncover misuse of government computers.

In February, The Times reported on investigative case summaries obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and other records detailing about two dozen SEC employees and contractors who faced internal investigations for viewing pornography at work.

Among the cases was an enforcement branch chief suspended for one day after being caught looking up sex websites nearly 300 times over a two-month period.

In supplying the records, officials at the SEC’s Office of Inspector General declined to release to The Times the names of those investigated, saying, among other reasons, that disclosure could subject employees to “harassment and annoyance in the conduct of their official duties and private lives.”

In court documents, the SEC argued the privacy interests of those involved outweighed any interest the public had in learning the information.

In addition, a former SEC employee investigated for looking at pornography at work also filed court papers in the Colorado lawsuit.

“Other than my spouse, none of my immediate or extended family, friends, current employer or any of my professional colleagues are aware of the investigation of me,” the former employee said in court filings. The judge allowed the former SEC worker to file papers in the case as “John Doe.”

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