Village at odds following hard drive investigation
June 15, 2011 - Concerns over the ongoing investigation of a former Village of Goodrich official's computer hard drive have prompted even more ripples of discontent in an already shaky council.
From breaches of personal information to public disclosure of e-mails to who's going to pay the $6,100 price tag for the action—the swirling laundry list of questions continues to grow.
The row began on Friday, Feb. 9 when the village council voted to request the resignation of Village Administrator Jakki Sidge. She was also requested to make her computer available to copy the hard drive and ordered to not delete any e-mails. She officially stepped down on Feb. 11.
"Initially the hard drive investigation is a standard procedure when a public official like Jakki leaves office," said Doug McAbee, who has served as village council president since the recall of Patricia Wartella in May. "But, it (the investigation) grew legs when they determined the hard drive was erased. That's what got it all started."
Village Councilmember Rick Horton responded to the hard drive issue at the Monday village council meeting.
Horton explained that following the resignation of Sidge on Feb. 11, the hard drive was removed from her computer upstairs in the village offices.
"That was on a Friday, so I took the hard drive home for the weekend and turned it over to Dave McDonald at the village meeting on Feb. 14," he said.
Horton said that McDonald, a retired Genesee County Sheriff Deputy and village employee then handed the hard drive over to the Genesee County Sheriff's Department, who then turned it over to a professional who made a copy.
"I signed a letter, Dave McDonald signed a letter when the hard drive changed hands," he said.
McAbee said McDonald then delivered the hard drive to ACA, 3487 Richfield Road, where the Genesee County Sheriff Department takes computer equipment for forensic work.
"ACA had the hard drive and requested the computer tower, which was still at the village office. They said it (hard drive) had been wiped clean. They were not trained to go any further with the investigation. After that, Wartella sent the computer to Lansing for more investigation," said McAbee.
The hard drive was sent to Lansing- based Dalman Investigations.
Larry Dalman, company owner, is a retired Michigan State Police detective with 28 years of experience in law enforcement. Dalman, a forensic computer technician who has investigated more than 100 computer related crimes for more than 35 different law enforcement agencies, reported several red flags following his investigation.
"The Village of Goodrich council voted to examine the hard drive of Sidge. That hard drive was taken out of the office and returned three days later," he said. "When (Horton) left with the hard drive on Friday there was a red flag. What's so important on the computer? Why would you do that?"
Dalman said other questions regarding the village computers started when I.T. Right Company of Bath, Mich. was contracted by the Village of Goodrich to install a new main server and backup their data each week. Since April 16, 2009, the date the new computer equipment was installed, the data at the village was not collected by I.T. Right Company.
"The village of Goodrich pays I.T. Right to backup their computers' data. However, they have no backups of any data from 2009 to current. If there's a fire or a major crash, there's simply no way to recover any of that information," he said.
The other concern is the use of the village e-mail.
"All employees were to use Outlook Express for e-mail—that has not worked since 2009. Rather, since the new hard drive was installed (April 16, 2009) they all opened private e-mails such as Hotmail or AOL, which requires private passwords to access. But keep in mind there's no exception of privacy with public employees—it's up to the discretion of the employer."
"That's why we created a forensic image of all the computers at the village offices. From that data we can go through everything that transpired since the beginning, which includes employee e-mails. We have determined there were files modified at some point when the hard drive was outside the building in February. The computers were defragged several times, too. We did find copies of 'Recall Patty Wartella' fliers on one of the computers. We are not looking for personal items, pictures, Social Security numbers, or what relationships may have transpired. What we are concerned with is what actions may have occurred during the recall of Patricia Wartella. Keep in mind that according to campaign laws, publishing fliers during business hours is prohibited. But, we've turned this information over to law enforcement."
Village Councilmember Pete Morey said Dalman's investigation has some problems.
"For starters, we do not do business with e-mails at the village," said Morey. "If anything, we use fax machines to move documents. It's very costly to taxpayers to backup e-mails. We pay $5,000 per year to I.T. Right to back up information from the village. It was their (I.T. Right's) recommendation not to back up e-mails. The more information you store, the more it costs."
Morey also responded to the hard drive that was allegedly wiped clean.
"If they would have just asked—everything on the hard drive is linked through a password that runs on our system at the village offices. They could have copied everything from the hard drive at the office. Now they are costing taxpayers thousands of dollars. The bill for the investigation is going to be Patty Wartella's, not the village's. It was all done without the authorization of council. Any amount over $1,000 requires approval by the council. That did not happen."
Currently, the cost of the investigation is $6,100.
Dalman said all the data gathered from the forensic examination of the computer remains encrypted.
"That means only I can see it with the forensic software and with my password," he said. "We take steps it does not get misplaced. People just can't get to that information. That's the way law enforcement works— we insure privacy."
One estimate suggested more than 30 names with Social Security numbers associated with the village were compromised when the hard drive was removed from the office.
Village resident Angie Ademec expressed concern regarding her Social Security number, which may have been compromised.
"This is an individual investigation," said Ademec.
"This was not a council action, they are determined to find Jakki (Sidge) is a criminal. They come in the office in the middle of the night, all in secret. The next thing we know, they've downloaded our personal data," she said.
"The way it's done, without council approval, that troubles me. Where did he send it? It's not a single chair, they don't have individual power, they are not allowed to spend money without council approval. They are obsessed with the investigation. It's blocking the village from moving forward."