The Securities and Exchange Commission is facing a federal lawsuit for keeping secret the names of dozens of its supervisors, employees and contractors who spent their workdays looking at pornography on their government computers.
The lawsuit, filed Friday by a Denver- and Washington-based law firm, accuses the SEC of violating federal open-records law by shielding the identities of more than two dozen current and past porn-snooping workers.
"There simply is no privacy right or interest to search pornography on SEC computers, particularly during work hours," says the 17-page complaint, filed in federal court in Denver.
The firm, Steese, Evans & Frankel, filed the lawsuit after it requested information on the spate of workplace pornography investigations through a Freedom of Information Act request. Although the firm received documents on the misconduct investigations, the names of those involved were redacted.
The porn-surfing investigations at the SEC have been an issue for years, but the problem recently received significant attention in Congress.
Last month, the SEC's office of inspector general sent a memo in response to questions from Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, saying that 33 employees or contractors had been found looking at sex sites in the office over the past five years. Most of this activity happened during the financial meltdown, and 17 involved senior SEC employees, who earned as much as $222,000 per year.
A spokesman for the SEC declined to comment on the lawsuit or the reasons for withholding the identities of the employees and contractors involved.
In February, The Washington Times reported on about two dozen cases of SEC employees or contractors caught looking at pornography at work, after obtaining more than 150 pages of investigative case summaries through an open records request.
But in supplying those records, officials declined to release to The Times the names of those involved, saying, among other reasons, that disclosure could subject employees to "harassment and annoyance in the conduct of their official duties and private lives."
Kevin D. Evans, a partner at the firm suing for the workers' identities, said in a telephone interview that the information should not be protected from release. Included in the court filing was the SEC's response to the law firm, which says the release of the names of those involved would "constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
The law firm disagreed.
"The SEC is wrong to claim that the withheld information pertaining to the misuse of public trust and taxpayer money by SEC personnel constitutes a 'private affair' or an 'invasion of privacy,'" the lawsuit argues. "This is particularly true, as SEC employees intentionally and deliberately took an action they admitted and knew was wrong."
SEC officials have defended the agency's handling of the pornography cases. In an agencywide e-mail last month, SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro warned employees that "any person who violates our clear rules against this inappropriate use of the Internet faces termination of employment."
SEC spokesman John Nester said last month that "each of the offending employees" has been disciplined or is in the process of being disciplined.
"Some have already been suspended or dismissed. While any misuse of government resources is always a concern, since February we have further increased penalties. We will not tolerate the transgressions of the very few who bring discredit to their thousands of hardworking colleagues," he said.
The Times has previously reported that some workers caught viewing porn, often for weeks or months at a time, were allowed to keep their jobs. One SEC employee who attempted to look up pornography more than 400 times received a three-day suspension. Another employee who looked up porn 271 times received a one-day suspension, records show.
Though five contractors were terminated and eight employees were allowed to resign before getting fired, "the SEC did not actually terminate any of the SEC employees who engaged in this sort of misconduct," Mr. Grassley wrote in a letter last month to Ms. Schapiro.
The porn-snooping activities occurred during both the Obama and Bush administrations, and the SEC isn't the only agency with workers who have looked up sex sites at work. Last year, The Times reported on several cases at the National Science Foundation, and earlier this year, the inspector general's office at the Department of Veterans Affairs reported on one employee caught looking at pornography.
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