Sloppy handling of state's vital records reviewed

State Office of Vital Records director Richard Wheat was so sloppy in his handling of records it raised concerns about security breaches, including leaks regarding the federal witness protection program.

Wheat was fired recently for what his superiors called "gross mismanagement and a lack of professional integrity."

State officials asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to determine whether there were any security breaches.

Wheat didn't commit any crime and there were no breaches, according to the completed GBI investigation report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was just disorganized about records.

Problems with the state Office of Vital Records extend beyond Wheat. People have complained of waiting months, if not years, to obtain simple changes to birth certificates.

They include Roxanne Jekot of Cumming, who spent 12 years trying to get her daughter's birth certificate. And Reda BeLinda Parrish, of Dalton, who logged the number of times she couldn't get through on the phone to the agency - 117.

The problems have been so bad that the agency, until days ago, had an apology printed on its Web site: "There have been times when you may have received busy signals, had calls terminate after ringing, or have had to wait for long periods ... We apologize for this."

The state Office of Vital Records, an arm of the state Division of Human Resources, handles some of the most important records in a person's life, including those for birth, death, marriage and divorce.

Wheat, who had been the office director for two years, came under scrutiny last month. Wheat took some time off, and employees discovered boxes of records and various documents and case files in his office, including Federal Witness Protection documents, according to the GBI report.

"These items were, for the most part, backlogged and apparently unaddressed work," the GBI report said.

Wheat violated agency protocol in the storage of sensitive documents and records by leaving them unattended in his office, the report said. He was placed on administrative leave and the GBI was contacted to investigate any breach of security.

The GBI determined there was no crime and no security breach.

"Wheat admitted during his interview to having poor organizational skills and to not delegating certain duties which ultimately led to the backlog, " the GBI report said.

Wheat, contacted by a reporter, declined to comment.

The U.S. Marshal's Office is addressing issues surrounding the witness protection documents, according to the GBI report.

Agency officials say problems in the office are being addressed, and that, according to the agency's updated Web site, a combination of additional recorded announcements and improved practices make it possible to complete all calls to the records office.

That is little relief for Roxanne Jekot, who for 12 years tried to get a birth certificate for her daughter from the state office. Her daughter had been born at home in 1995, and despite sending numerous identification documents to the state, the state kept refusing to issue the certificate - sometimes asking for records that had already been sent, she said.

The family had to ask a probate judge for a temporary birth certificate to enroll the girl in school. They couldn't get a Social Security number for the girl, and couldn't claim the girl as a dependent on tax forms.

Exasperated, Jekot called her local state representative Tom Knox (R-Cumming), whose staff contacted the agency directly. In June 2008, about six weeks later, she received her daughter's birth certificate.

"I have never had to deal with a more brain dead group of people in my life," Jekot said.

Reda BeLinda Parrish was at her wit's end and in tears after a year of trying to have the vital records agency correct a typo on her birth certificate. Then she called the secretary of state's office for help.

She originally needed the corrected birth certificate to get a passport for a cruise for her 30th wedding anniversary. She even went to court to change her name, but the vital records agency kept dropping the ball on changing the document, she said.

Calls to the vital records agency were an exercise in futility, she said. She was transferred and disconnected, or reached a full voice mailbox. She sent in the required paperwork three times, she said, and "felt much anguish."

Staffers in the Secretary of State's Office sympathized with her and made a point of cutting through the red tape. Four days after contacting that office, she received her corrected birth certificate last month.

"I have already applied for my passport" for a cruise, she said. "I plan on dancing the whole time."