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Request for names of porn-viewing SEC employees denied

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  1. Freedom of Information
The names and job descriptions of Securities and Exchange Commission employees who were caught viewing pornography at work will remain…

The names and job descriptions of Securities and Exchange Commission employees who were caught viewing pornography at work will remain a secret, a federal district judge ruled Tuesday in Colorado.

Denver attorney Kevin Evans requested the information after reading an SEC report that found that 24 SEC employees and seven employees of an SEC contractor were using agency computers to access pornography. The investigation found that the employees in question spent hours at work viewing pornographic websites and one employee was found to have a long-standing Internet porn addiction.

The SEC denied Evans' request for the names and job descriptions of the employees, but did provide information about how the employees were disciplined. The agency claimed releasing the names would violate the workers' privacy rights. The federal district court agreed with the SEC in a case that was joined by one of the employees implicated in the report, represented as John Doe in the case.

Doe argued that if his name were revealed, he would face embarrassment, disgrace and the possible loss of his job. The court held that "the sexual nature of the misconduct reinforces the need to protect the privacy interests of these individuals."

Because the information that would have been released would implicate more than just reputational damage related to misconduct on the job, but also extended to embarrassment of a sexual nature, the court found that individual privacy rights were highly implicated. The court also would not allow the release of the job descriptions because identification from those descriptions is "a palpable and substantial threat."

While the privacy interest for the employees is substantial, the public interest is "negligible, at best" because "the misconduct was not directly related to how the employees performed their official responsibilities, but rather, whether and when they performed them," the court said. (The emphasis is in the opinion.)

Evans said he is offended as a taxpayer and an attorney for the abuses conducted on the taxpayer's dime. Most of the SEC employees that were caught were attorneys, he said. "If any lawyer [in private practice] were to charge a client for time spent looking at porn, they would lose their license. These attorneys had virtually no repercussions."

Evans believes the Freedom of Information Act is being watered down by federal judges. "They're ignoring the real purpose behind FOIA and embracing the exemptions," he said. "The exemptions are swallowing the rule."

While he's not sure if he will file an appeal in this case, Evans noted that he did not exhaust his administrative options and on Tuesday he served the SEC with a new request for the names of the contractors involved in the report. He says this new request is clearly worded and there's "no way" the SEC can withhold the information.

And if he is once again denied by the SEC? "I will sue," Evans said.