Court: Googling an employee name not a federal offense

U.S. judges deem it legal to use Google to look up an employee's work history

A panel of three federal judges upheld a decision by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) that says a fired federal employee wasn't harmed when a federal official used the Google search engine to research his prior work history.

The decision by the federal judges stemmed from the 2005 firing of David M. Mullins, an employee of the U.S. Commerce Department. Mullins was fired for misusing a government vehicle and credit card and falsifying travel documents.

After he was fired, Mullins appealed to the MSPB, a Washington-based independent quasi-judicial agency established to ensure adequate protection for employees against abuses by agency management.

In his appeal, Mullins contended that Valeria Capell, the Commerce Department official who was assigned to investigate the allegations against him, violated his "right to fundamental fairness" by using information about his prior work history that was gleaned from a Google search on Mullins' name. Information from the search engine showed that Mullins had been fired from the Smithsonian Institution and from a civil service job with the U.S. Air Force.

Mullins alleged that Capell committed perjury when she told the MSPB that his prior work history did not affect her decision to authorize his firing from his Commerce Department job.

The MSPB ruled last June that Capell did not use the information from the Google searches to make her decision to fire Mullins and dismissed his claims of prejudice.

In its May 4 decision, the judges from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed with the MSPB and found that the Commerce Department was within its rights to fire Mullins.

Mullins, who lives in Avon, Ind., could not be reached for comment.

According to the federal court decision, Mullins, a technician at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration's Weather Forecast Office, part of the Commerce Department, was fired because he misused a government vehicle on 78 occasions.

For example, although Mullins worked in Indianapolis, his government-issued credit card records indicated he bought gas in Tennessee and Ohio. When confronted with the information, Mullins admitted he misused his government vehicle. He also admitted to making unauthorized cash withdrawals on his government-issued credit card as well as falsifying travel documents.

Mullins said he legitimately "made money on government travel" by sleeping in his government vehicle and submitting fabricated hotel receipts.

"Because Mr. Mullins's two prior job losses did not affect Ms. Capell's decision to remove Mr. Mullins, the record shows no prejudice," the judges wrote. "Indeed, on April 22, 2005, before Ms. Capell discovered Mr. Mullins's two prior job losses, [the Commere Department} had already outlined 102 specifications to support the ... charges of misuse and misconduct against Mr. Mullins."

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