JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The federal Social Security Administration said Monday that it mistakenly informed a Missouri congressman investigators had read an electronic list of more than 160,000 people with permits to carry concealed guns in the state.
The federal agency now says that the encrypted disk was unable to be opened.
The agency's public reversal came after U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer held a news conference Monday morning in Jefferson City sharing the faulty information he had been told by the inspector general of the Social Security Administration. Republicans pointed to the confusion as a reason to press forward with their own inquiry into why the Missouri State Highway Patrol provided the list to federal authorities. Republicans contend that gun owners' privacy rights were violated.
"This shows that there is definitely a need for more clarity from the Social Security Administration," said Luetkemeyer spokesman Paul Sloca. "If there's inconsistencies, Blaine wants to get to the bottom of it."
House Speaker Tim Jones and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer joined Luetkemeyer at the news conference Monday. Schaefer, R-Columbia, said he hopes to elicit testimony before a Senate committee from the federal investigator who originally requested the information on concealed gun permit holders. Jones, R-Eureka, said lawmakers want to find out "the total truth of what happened here."
The controversy over Missouri's concealed gun permit holders began in early March, when Republicans touted a lawsuit challenging a new procedure for issuing Missouri driver's licenses in which clerks are making electronic copies of applicants' personal documents such as birth certificates and concealed gun permits. Missouri licensing offices handle concealed gun documents because they issue the necessary photo identification cards or place the concealed-carry endorsement on people's driver's licenses.
Members of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's administration say those scanned documents have been kept on a state computer server and not shared with the federal government or other any other entities. But during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing last week, the head of the Missouri State Highway Patrol said his agency had twice obtained a separate electronic list of concealed gun permit holders that was based on driver's license information and shared that list with a fraud investigator in the Social Security administration.
Patrol Col. Ron Replogle told The Associated Press on Monday that the federal investigator had looked into whether a particular person had fraudulently obtained Social Security disability benefits by citing a mental illness yet had a concealed carry permit, which his not supposed to be issued to people who have been judged mentally incompetent. Because of that one case, the investigator wanted to review Missouri's list of concealed gun permit holders as a means of looking for other potential disability fraud cases, Replogle said.
As he told senators last week, Replogle reiterated Monday that the investigator was unable to read either the disk originally provided in November 2011 or a second disk of information provided this January.
The Social Security Administration on Friday had told Luetkemeyer and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the second disk was able to be read. But the agency said Monday that was incorrect.
"In sum, although this office twice received disks containing data identifying Missouri concealed carry permit holders, we were never successful in opening the files or viewing this data," Jonathan Lasher, the agency's assistant inspector general for external relations said in an email Monday. He added: "We regret any confusion our earlier statement might have caused."
Yet even with that acknowledgment, there appear to be other areas of confusion.
For example, Luetkemeyer said Monday that he was told the request for the concealed guns list originated from a "brainstorming situation" in which federal investigators met in Kansas City with someone from the Highway Patrol in November 2011. Replogle said he was unaware of any face-to-face meeting before the request was received.
Luetkemeyer also said federal officials didn't appear to be looking into any specific instance of fraud.
"I'm not sure a fishing expedition would be the proper word, but they thought it would be a way to sort of, again, filter through the system and find some folks," Luetkemeyer said.
One fact that has remained consistent is the assertion that federal investigators destroyed the computer disks without using them or sharing the information with other federal agencies.
Luetkemeyer said he was told by Patrick O'Carroll, the inspector general of the U.S. Social Security Administration, that the request for information was legal but should have followed agency protocol to be put in writing.