When Deputy Director Doug Thompson came into Vanessa Niekamp’s office, he closed the door. Then Thompson told Niekamp, an administrator for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services' Office of Child Support, that she should write an e-mail to the agency's information-security officer, and dictated what she should write. His goal: to cover up the fact that he had earlier authorized her to check on the child support status of Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, better known as “Joe the Plumber,” for political purposes, in violation of state law. He also reminded her that she could be fired at any time, she said.
"Within an hour, I took the rest of the day off, using my vacation time,” Niekamp recounted, “and went directly to the office of the inspector general. I told them everything I knew about what happened."
Niekamp had been the unwitting pawn in an effort to use private government information to undermine a perceived political foe. The day after Republican presidential nominee John McCain talked about Wurzelbacher in the final presidential debate on October 15, Niekamp said, Assistant Deputy Director Carri Brown asked her to check the state child-support computer system for Wurzelbacher. Brown "claimed that he had contacted our agency with a dispute about how much child support he owed," according to Niekamp’s subsequent testimony before the Ohio Legislature. A week later, her boss, Thompson, demanded that she assist in the cover-up.
So often, in these situations, the low-ranking administrator is intimidated into going along, fearful that it is the best way to save her own job. Sometimes, it is. But the duty of every government employee is to stop corruption and expose corrupt officials. You don’t have to be a fan of “Joe the Plumber” to be revolted by the concept of state officials using private state records to embarrass a citizen because he supports the “wrong” presidential candidate. The kind of integrity and courage displayed by Niekamp could have prevented so many frauds and scandals that we saw in 2008, and would have saved billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.
This time, at least, an Ethics Hero was in the right place at the right time.