Last week, an Allegheny County jury convicted a one-time Republican political operative, Leon Abramovitz, of luring an adult man into his home and bullying him into committing sexual acts. It was not the first time such accusations have been made: Abramovitz plead no contest to similar charges in 1999 and 2000, amid considerable media attention. Yet if his victim this time around had checked the state's online database of sex offenders, he'd have found no record of that conviction.
That's because the database, whose usefulness and accuracy has been questioned before, has been listing him as "Leon Abramowitz" instead.
As with similar sites in other states, Pennsylvania's "Megan's Law" Web site (www.pameganslaw.state.pa.us) was created after the 1994 death of Megan Kanka. The New Jersey girl was killed by a neighbor who, unbeknownst to the community, was a convicted sex offender. The sites are supposed to inform residents about potential predators ... but their effectiveness, obviously, can be undermined by a single keystroke. Because Abramovitz's last name was typed into the database with a "w" instead of a "v," for example, a search for his name produces no records.
The site is maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police. Told of the spelling error, an agency spokesperson, Trooper Linette Quinn, says, "I'll notify [the staff in charge of the site], and they'll look into it. They strive to do this accurately."
Even so, concerns have been raised about the site's accuracy. In an audit of the site released May 1, state Auditor General Jack Wagner complained of inaccuracies and outdated information. While noting that improvements had been made since previous audits, Wagner warned,"[T]here are still far too many deficiencies that keep Pennsylvania from doing its best to protect citizens." Among the shortcomings Wagner cited were outdated photos and address information that was either inaccurate or too vague.
The audit did not discuss typos or other data-entry errors, though Wagner spokesman Steve Halvonik says that, in general, "The auditor general believes state police haven't done enough to ensure the accuracy of the information."
Quinn says that the staff maintaining the site includes a lieutenant, a corporal, two troopers, two civilian clerks ... and two office temps helping out with the workload. That staff manages a database listing the names of more than 8,000 sexual offenders statewide. Every day it handles between 100 and 150 phone calls ... requests for information, updates on convict whereabouts, and so on.
"Sometimes the information we get is inaccurate," Quinn says. "And sometimes the users have the wrong information ... they're searching for a name they've spelled wrong."
Quinn urges that residents who "have concerns about the information on the site call our toll-free number at 1-866-771-3170." In the meantime, she notes, residents anxious about a neighbor can search the database by county, so that a misplaced keystroke won't conceal a potential predator. (The site also allows you to search by zip code, though typos can cause problems here as well: One offender on the site, for example, is listed as a Pittsburgh resident, but with a ZIP code of 19205, a Philadelphia location.)
Abramovitz's (misspelled) name indeed appears in a list of Allegheny County sex offenders. You'll find it alongside nearly 600 others from Pittsburgh ... not to mention two living in "Pitssburgh," one from "Pittsbrugh," four from "Pittsburg," one from "Sheradon," another from "Bralkenridge" ...