Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Auditor’s whistleblower reports: workers misusing state computers

by Matt Rosenberg October 20th, 2011

Five separate whistleblower investigation reports issued this week by Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag find that employees at state agencies misused their workplace computers for personal purposes. According to the reports, they used their state computers to make hundreds upon hundreds of visits to hobby, shopping, wedding, photo, auction, and personal finance sites, and to trade stocks, work for a direct sales business, administer web sites for a dance studio and photography business, do work for a non-profit, administer classes taught at a local parks department, do their taxes, and urge veterans to lobby elected officials. Of the five employees, two resigned as investigations unfolded. Three others are being investigated further by their department supervisors. Employers involved are the departments of Social and Health Services; Personnel; and Labor and Industries; and the Office of Minority and Women Business Enterprises. Each pledges to continue reminding employees of prohibitions against personal use of state computers.

Two of the whistleblower investigations into misuse of workplace computers were of employees at the Washington State Department of Health and Social Services. One report found that Financial Services Specialist Mari Trotter made 234 visits on her state computer to non-work-related Web sites including 72 to an online email provider, 61 to radio station and radio station contest sites, 53 to real estate property value sites and 48 to vehicle value sites. In addition, the auditor’s report found Trotter made 80 visits in one day to non-work related arts and crafts sites. She said she was not familiar with these sites and that other employees may have used her computer. Investigators found evidence she used her state computer and some state work hours in connection with arts and crafts classes she taught for a parks and recreation department, including 16 emails between her and the parks department, plus four time sheets and two class supply lists. Trotter was transferred to another division of DSHS. The department says it will investigate.

A second recently-released whistleblower investigation of a DSHS employee concluded Support Enforcement Officer Edwina Pezoldt used her state computer to visit wedding related sites 348 times, social networking sites 475 times, shopping and shopping reward sites 175 times, online auction and classified advertising sites 43 times, online tax preparation and Internal Revenue Service sites 87 times, an online university site 236 times, photo-ordering and photo-sharing sites 84 times, a personal email site 935 times, and a direct sales site 295 times. Pezoldt told department officials she was not a sales consultant of the direct sales business but witnesses said she did engage in the business on state time and using state resources. Pezoldt declined to be interviewed by the auditor’s office for their investigation. The department says it will investigate her case further to determine if wrongdoing occurred and that in the meantime it has blocked access for most employees from their work computers to inappropriate sites including ones related to social networking, personal finance, banking, travel, and retail.

A third report found that at the state Office of Minority and Women Business Enterprises a worker identified by the auditor’s office as Management Analyst 4 Jerald Ballard used his work computer to visit E-Trade 465 times, Nasdaq 90 times, a personal banking site 77 times and an educational site 35 times. Ballard also saved 646 files to his hard drive related to stock trading and according to witnesses had been seen trading stocks on his state computer “for years,” and continuing after Ballard “was reprimanded by management.” Ballard declined to be interviewed for the whistleblower report. The department told the auditor’s office it would investigate and reiterate to employees the related policies against personal use of work computers.

The fourth report found that at the state’s Department of Labor and Industries Investigator Clinton “Jack” Staples used his state computer to make 887 visits to non-work-related sites including 726 to BMW or motorcycle sites, 78 to a classified advertising site, and 45 to military sites. Staples also had 113 non-work-related images on his state computer and 400 non-work-related emails. These included emails related to his work for a non-profit organization. He also used his state computer to order a set of DVDs, make hotel arrangements for a motorcycle rally, and urge military veterans to lobby legislators. In response to the investigation, Clinton resigned. The department says it will continue to emphasize related policies against personal use of state computers to employees at hiring and afterward.

A fifth report found that at the state’s Department of Personnel, Information Technology Specialist 4 Alex Mutnick made 700 visits using his state computer to non-work-related sites including 272 to a local dance studio, 187 to a mobile phone site, 80 to his personal site, 38 to an online shopping site, 18 to a photo- and video-sharing site and 100 to other non-work-related sites. Mutnick also saved 1,016 non-work-related files on his computer including 799 related to the local dance studio, supporting “the assertion” he “used his state computer to maintain web sites for a local dance studio and a photography business.” The department found Mutnick made 1,194 non-work-related phone calls including 70 to the dance studio. When confronted he said the number was “de minimus,” and denied doing work for the studio and the photography business. A week later he conceded to the department he had done private work on his state computer but not for fnancial gain. before the investigation ended, he resigned.

State Auditor’s office spokesperson Mindy Chambers said of the investigations that the departments involved are taking many of the right steps in response as evidenced by resignations in two of the cases, and re-emphasis on policies against personal use of state computers and time. One especially useful approach, used at the Auditor’s Office and elsewhere, Chambers said, is pop-up messages on employee computers which remind workers they are to be used for state purposes only and that their use is being periodically monitored. More basically, Chambers said, “employees have to use good judgement, ask themselves, ‘is this what taxpayers are paying me to do at work?’ If they did this, 99 percent of these instances wouldn’t occur.”

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2 Responses to “Auditor’s whistleblower reports: workers misusing state computers”

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