Grist for the Mill: Muncipal Employees, the Electronic Fraud Edition

The City Hall hush hush criminal investigation is reaching sufficient gestation to take shape and could do so with an announcement of arrests as soon as this week.

A zeitgeist realization around town of potentially numerous electronic laws broken leads some to believe the case could quickly mushroom should the “outside” agencies properly vet their quarry.  Such a broadening could find countless others on the other side of the violation ledger, with any exchange of monies a slam dunk for convictions all around.

The two employees believed to be at the heart of the ongoing criminal investigation at City Hall are both in the technology department and in a state of “suspended animation” much like the town awaiting the next bomb to fall.  While replacements have been seen collecting information to clean up passwords and security as a whole, the future of their predecessor’s jobs could be the least of their worries now.

Each with access to all kinds of sensitive information from city financial data to confidential electronic correspondence of elected officials including the mayor, could lead to culpability in a variety of law breaking from computer fraud, illegal electronic interception, trading in electronic confidential information for political and/or financial gain to name but a few.  Any violations, even a handful would carry severe penalties with jail time.

Since the mayor was elected in November 2009, City Hall is more like an armed camp with many municipal employees recognizing their interests have been subsumed by those of the taxpayer.  While others talk about being budget hawks and give lip service to reining in costs and reducing taxes, Mayor Zimmer is recognized as a true threat even if it meant bumping up against the ways and means of city workers.

When the mayor reorganized the police department saving $2.5 million in the first year alone, everyone saw firsthand the serious intent of her following through on campaign promises.  A more cooperative effort in the fire department saw similar savings benchmarked against 2008 staffing levels with additional seven figure savings.

That course put the mayor at direct odds with the municipal workers charged with handling the city’s electronic and sensitive data: both financial and transactional.  The Information Technology group holding all the oversight on passwords and logins can see anything from budget line items proposed for change in excel spreadsheets of the Business Administrator on the server to electronic confidential correspondence of the mayor with Directors and constituents.

Tapping into this information outside of professional necessity whether for profit or political fun and games holds equally severe penalties.  If such transgressions occurred and based on the fact outside agencies are involved, there’s going to be some spectacular crashing and burning.

Where it leads to is uncertain, but anti-Administration haters always looking to identify any means of attack could find themselves on the wrong side of the law as well if they had a hand in obtaining illicitly collected information.  Is Hoboken about to see the motherlode  of all transparency casualties?

The best analogy to such a possible scenario would be the Sarah Palin email break-in.  A motivated political Tennessee hacker guessed the password into her personal Yahoo email account and began running amok.  When he was caught his excuses were not given much credence and the weight of the Federal statutes came down on his head like a ton of bricks.

Although it’s unclear which outside agencies are involved in reviewing any law breaking, a guesstimate would be New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow’s office.  As a fat file already sits on her desk reading “Hoboken fraud,” from the November 4th ward special election, adding another subsection would be a logical assumption.

City Hall employees are whispering it was the FBI who came to City Hall but agents can be dispatched by both the US Federal Attorney’s office and also the State Attorney General.  One rumor says a city server has already been carted away.  If true, a forensics examination is moving along and initial charges filed could happen as soon as this week.  But this wouldn’t be the end of the matter, it would only be the beginning.

Based on a layman’s legal reading, trading in the illicitly obtained information would be problematic for the recipients, not just people who directed it from the city’s servers.  If at any time money was exchanged for the information, the penalties would rise dramatically and claims of ignorance would not stand scrutiny.  With the hammer about to fall, even the paid Beth Mason bloggers are silent along with her propaganda vehicle Hoboken411, witness the virtual one sided war taking place on the wild west Hoboken forum.

Rolling the alleged accomplices could quickly mushroom into unrelated areas where cases could be built over months or even years, much like Operation Bid Rig III that brought down ex-mayor Peter Cammarano.  Voter fraud would certainly be high on any subsidiary hit list for the authorities and there may be virtual gold to data mine, pardon the pun.

Regardless of the motivation for dipping into the city’s confidential data, whether for profit or for political gain by releasing it to anti-Adminstration haters, the penalties would be most severe.

A cursory review of merely one statute suggests serious trouble is on the horizon:

§ 2701. Unlawful access to stored communications

(a) Offense.— Except as provided in subsection (c) of this section whoever—

(1) intentionally accesses without authorization a facility through which an electronic communication service is provided; or

(2) intentionally exceeds an authorization to access that facility;

and thereby obtains, alters, or prevents authorized access to a wire or electronic communication while it is in electronic storage in such system shall be punished as provided in subsection (b) of this section.
(b) Punishment.— The punishment for an offense under subsection (a) of this section is—

(1) if the offense is committed for purposes of commercial advantage, malicious destruction or damage, or private commercial gain, or in furtherance of any criminal or tortious act in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States or any State—

(A) a fine under this title or imprisonment for not more than 5 years, or both, in the case of a first offense under this subparagraph; and
(B) a fine under this title or imprisonment for not more than 10 years, or both, for any subsequent offense under this subparagraph; and

It’s the quiet before the storm.

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