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Privacy Act does not bar discussion of employees with media

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Privacy Act does not bar discussion of employees with media 08/25/97 GEORGIA--A postmaster's comments to Florida Times-Union reporter Derek Kinner…

Privacy Act does not bar discussion of employees with media

08/25/97

GEORGIA–A postmaster’s comments to Florida Times-Union reporter Derek Kinner accusing one employee of poor attendance and another of impersonating a postal inspector did not violate the rights of either employee under the federal Privacy Act, a federal District Court in Savannah ruled in late July.

The court said Postmaster Mickey Lee talked to Kinner solely from personal knowledge of the two employees, without revealing any records about them. The Privacy Act only protects against disclosure of information in government records retrievable from a “system of records,” it said.

The court subpoenaed Kinner’s testimony in the Privacy Act case brought by the two postal workers, and he testified only after it rejected his attempt to quash the subpoena. Kinner said he testified in court only as needed to affirm that the Waycross, Ga., postmaster had provided him the information he attributed to Lee in a story that appeared in October 1994 in the Times-Union. Kinner reports from the Fernandina Beach, Fla., office of the Jacksonville newspaper.

Kinner’s story concerned Lee’s suspension without pay of Waycross postal workers John Johnson and Robert Porter after they complained that it was unsafe to continue working with a fellow employee with a history of arrests following his violent confrontations with police and sheriff in his hometown of Homerville.

Lee had testified in a deposition that he had not made the statements about Johnson and Porter that appeared in the Times-Union. However, in a footnote to its decision, the court said that Kinner’s testimony made Lee’s credibility “very suspect.” The postmaster’s testimony, “where self-serving, was not to be believed unless corroborated by other credible evidence,” the court said.

The court found that although the Privacy Act did not bar Lee’s discussion with a reporter, Lee had “flagrantly violated” Johnson’s Privacy Act rights when he summoned several other postal workers in to view a letter responding to the charges of impersonation from Johnson’s attorney and to poke fun at its draftsmanship. The letter was a record on Johnson that should have been maintained in a system of records, the court said. It awarded Johnson $1,000 and attorneys fees. The court did not find any violation of Porter’s Privacy Act rights. (Porter v. Postal Service; Media Counsel: Shannon Gentry, Augusta)