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Erie County Legislators Call for Investigations of Data Disposal Blunder

A group of Erie County Legislators is calling for an investigation into how and why Department of Social Services workers mishandled sensitive data that potentially compromised the privacy of hundreds of residents who applied for government assistance.

Four members of the Legislature’s Minority Caucus on Tuesday held a news conference in Old Erie County Hall to announce that on Thursday, they will request that the Legislature set a hearing in response to the revelation this week by Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw that boxes of records containing residents’ personal information were improperly discarded, potentially leaving those residents vulnerable to identity theft.

The lawmakers also are requesting that Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer and representatives from both the county attorney’s and district attorney’s offices attend the hearing.

Legislator Lynne M. Dixon, I-Hamburg, said lawmakers want to learn from the administration what the proper protocols are for disposing of old records that contain confidential information and why those procedures apparently were not followed.

“We’re trying to determine what the process is, was and should be, and fix it going forward,” Dixon said.

The county comptroller’s office had been investigating the social services’ recertification process for those who receive Medicaid and Temporary Assistance benefits through the county when auditors were alerted to the fact that hundreds of records containing residents’ personal information were being disposed of improperly.

According to Mychajliw, the documents included copies of birth certificates, personal medical records, Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, tax returns, inmate records, payroll information, court records and passports. The comptroller’s office now has all the records.

“There is a reasonable expectation that people have when they provide this information ... that the information they’re providing is protected ... and that that information should be properly discarded when done. The fact that that wasn’t done here, apparently, leads us to ask many more questions as to why,” Dixon said.

There is, so far, no evidence that any of the social services recipients’ personal information was misused.

Mark Cornell, a spokesman for County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, has said the administration learned more than a month ago that some department workers had been discarding sensitive documents in recycling boxes instead of in the locked bin approved for confidential documents. Cornell said the administration acted immediately to ensure that sensitive records were properly disposed of.

Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, on Tuesday said the fact that such a potential breach occurred at all remains a serious concern.

“That’s why I think this investigation is so necessary,” he said. “We just can’t sweep this under the rug. We can’t say, ‘Oh, well, it was a problem. We’ve taken care of it.’ I really think we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw.”

Legislator Edward A. Rath III, R-Williamsville, noted that the county had 4,528 complaints of consumer identity theft in 2012. He said the government failed its residents and needs to correct the error.

“I think the main focus here is to ensure that something like this never happens again,” said Legislator Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca.

“There’s evidence that these records have been mishandled, possibly going back several administrations. Our focus is to have the hearing, find out what steps need to be put in place to ensure that residents’ information isn’t compromised,” Lorigo added.

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