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Veterans' privacy bill slides through

Opponents fear the trend toward greater government secrecy is too restrictive to the public.

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 17, 2002

State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite pleased veterans' groups and vexed the protectors of the state's open government law when her bill to restrict public access to military records passed in the recently concluded special session.

During the regular session, Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, had succeeded in getting the bill through the Senate, but not the House of Representatives.

Gov. Jeb Bush gave it a second chance when he made it one of the relatively select list of bills to come up for discussion in the special session, which was mostly devoted to the budget.

It passed, with the help of a House sponsor and energetic lobbying by veterans' groups.

Veterans "became invigorated about the issue," Brown-Waite said. "They realized they didn't want to wait until (next year's) session for this to happen."

But Barbara Petersen of the state's First Amendment Foundation would rather not have seen it pass at all. Petersen's group -- a nonprofit advocate of open government in Florida -- said Brown-Waite has long been a leader in efforts to obscure the sunshine on the state's public records.

This year, Peterson said, the senator used the terrorist attacks to justify several bills to restrict access to records.

"I also think she sort of used the security issue to push through, or attempt to push through, things that had nothing to do with 9/11," Petersen said last month.

She singled out the veterans bill as one of these bills.

But Brown-Waite said the bill could potentially thwart terrorists as well as more ordinary criminals. After a fire destroyed a central records repository in St. Louis in the 1970s, the federal government encouraged veterans to file their discharge documents in local courthouses.

The records, which include Social Security numbers and other personal information, could be used to create a false identity, Brown-Waite said.

The federal government recently stopped advising veterans to register their records with local authorities.

"We're trying to protect former military personnel from possible identity theft or invasion of privacy through unauthorized access to medical records or other personal files," Brown-Waite said in a press release.

Brown-Waite also said the bill had been modified. It previously called for cutting off public access to these records.

The version that passed allowed veterans to retrieve their own records.

Charlie Price, a retired colonel who lobbied for the bill on behalf of the Disabled American Veterans and other groups, said the matter came up precisely because someone did try to use the information to defraud a veteran.

A South Florida resident was caught trying to cash a $9,000 check on the American Express account of a retired sailor.

"There's a lot of private information the public does not need to have access to," he said. He added that people who need the information for legitimate reasons will be able to get it through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

In the past, he said, the government "encouraged us to use the courthouse as a filing cabinet and I don't think it was ever intended to be a filing cabinet."

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