Snooping Leads to Secrecy in Allegheny County, Pa., Council

Privacy versus the Sunshine Act, which outlines criteria for transparent meetings.


A group of Allegheny County, Pa., Council members was so concerned the county executive's office could be snooping on its internal emails, calendars and documents that it has been meeting in secret to discuss buying an independent computer server, council members said.

Investigations by the Allegheny County Police and the Department of Computer Services turned up no evidence that council's communications were compromised, said Vice President Nick Futules, but the potential for that raised doubts about council's ability to operate separately as a legislative check on executive branch authority, council members said.

"We're looking into it, and we want to make sure that no one can snoop on our emails," Councilman Michael Finnerty, D-Scott, said.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's staff does not have access to council's computer system and does not want access, said Jennifer Liptak, Fitzgerald's chief of staff. But the Department of Computer Services investigation showed that Liptak, who worked for council as a staffer for eight years, and another former council staff employee now working in Fitzgerald's office, received calendar notifications from some council members.

"We respect the separation of the legislative branch," Liptak said.

Council members and their staffers share an email server with Fitzgerald's office, the Controller's Office, the Treasurer's Office and other county departments. County courts, the District Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Office are on separate servers, county spokeswoman Amie Downs said.

Council members discussed breaking from the server and authorized seeking bids from computer companies to install their own during closed-door sessions of the Executive Committee on March 12 and Feb. 12, council members said. Council staff issued on March 17 a request seeking proposals from "IT Support Companies to further develop a Public Website, Corporate Intranet and Web Enabled applications." The request does not specify a potential cost for the project. Council hopes to sign a contract by Dec. 1, 2014.

Futules, who as vice president is responsible for supervising the day-to-day operations of council and its staff, said council will likely have to ask for a special appropriation in the 2015 budget to pay for the server. Fitzgerald can veto the budget; council can override.

Council requested no money in the 2014 capital budget. Its $1.1 million operating budget contains only $18,000 for minor equipment.

"We just thought it was time to separate the government," Futules said.

Councilman Bill Robinson, D-Hill District, first raised concerns about the security of council communications during a Dec. 9 news conference in which he asked county police to sweep county council offices for listening devices and investigate whether computers had been compromised.

Robinson suspects someone interfered in council business when then-council President Charles Martoni, D-Swissvale, removed Robinson as chair of the Budget and Finance Committee.

"My experience says to me that where there's smoke, there might be fire. I do not think you let the building burn before you yell fire. I felt something was amiss," Robinson said.

Futules said county police determined the offices were not bugged. The county's Department of Computer Services, which investigated whether computers were compromised, found that two members of Fitzgerald's staff were receiving calendar notifications from some county council members. Before leaving council for Fitzgerald's office, they asked that all projects they worked on be reassigned and all computer privileges and access be terminated, Liptak said. When council learned about the calendar notifications -- likely an oversight during the transition, council members said -- Liptak and the other staff member made themselves available to council to answer any questions. Council had none, Liptak said.

"We wanted to make sure that no one felt in any capacity that anyone was doing anything inappropriate," Liptak said.

Council members did voice concerns about snooping during closed-door meetings. The Tribune-Review objected to those closed-door meetings, contending council members were in violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act for not disclosing the reason for the executive session.

Council President John DeFazio, D-Shaler, told the Trib that council met in executive session to discuss staffing, salaries and job descriptions. He did not disclose to the Trib discussions concerning computer servers or the security of council communications.

"Someone just brought something up about it," DeFazio said about the computer server and communication security issues. "I didn't think too much of it."

DeFazio said he does not have concerns about the security of council communications.

The Sunshine Act, which outlines criteria for meeting in executive sessions, does not allow elected bodies to discuss computer servers in a closed meeting, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the nonprofit Pennsylvania Newspaper Association in Harrisburg.

"The law is pretty clear about what can and can't be discussed in executive session and if there is any question, the body should err on the side of openness."

Violation of the Sunshine Act could open county council up to criminal or civil penalties, Melewsky said.

©2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)