FBI to Examine Content of Machines for Clues to D.C. Corruption Scandal
Federal authorities are investigating how two computer servers belonging to a D.C. office at the center of a corruption scandal wound up next to a commercial trash compactor in a Northwest Washington alley.
A building maintenance man found the three-foot-high servers -- labeled "PROPERTY OF D.C. OFFICE OF TAX AND REVENUE" -- early Wednesday in a trash alcove behind a Ruby Tuesday in Columbia Heights.
Servers are powerful computers that typically store vast databases or other records to be shared throughout a company or agency. Officials said they have yet to determine whether any personal information about the District's taxpayers, such as bank account and Social Security numbers, was stored on the servers, or how the equipment ended up in the alley. Servers are bulky, typically weighing 50 pounds or more.
Federal investigators want to examine the equipment for evidence or data tied to the alleged embezzlement of more than $20 million in bogus property tax refunds. Two former tax office employees are among 10 people arrested in the case, described by authorities as the biggest corruption scandal in the city. Federal authorities have been combing records for months.
D.C. police officers initially returned the servers to the city government's technology office. But after inquiries from The Washington Post, police sent detectives yesterday to retrieve the machines. The FBI took possession of them late yesterday.
Mary Ellen Bayer, property manager of the Tivoli Square retail center on 14th Street, said it didn't take long for her and maintenance engineer Melvin Barnes to become suspicious about what was left on their complex's back stoop. Bayer said Barnes called the office of Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi to report what he had found. She said she also urged Barnes to contact the police.
Gandhi's agency oversees the tax office, which federal authorities said had been plagued by theft for more than a decade.
"When I remembered the scandal that happened in that office, I thought giving it back to the tax office wasn't necessarily the right thing to do," Bayer said yesterday. "There was no way this was the standard procedure to get rid of D.C. government computers. It appeared someone was trying to get rid of information."
Mike Teller, chief information officer for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, said bar codes on the servers indicate they have not been used by the tax office for five years. One server was made by Unisys and the other by Compaq.
Servers can be given to another city agency or D.C. public schools when the machines outlive their usefulness to the tax office, Teller said, but the Office of the Chief Financial Officer does not know whether these were and, if so, why their tax office labels were not removed. The office policy is to wipe confidential data off the drives before relinquishing the machines or disposing of them, he said.
Teller said he did not know whether confidential information was at risk. "I'm as anxious to know as you are," he said.
Privacy experts said the servers' mysterious path should concern all taxpayers.
"It's outrageous," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "This is a tremendous failure in respecting privacy and security."
Harris expressed concern that the District may be unable to reliably answer the most important security questions: which servers were found, how many laptops were connected to them, what was the chain of custody and who had access to them.
"I can't say what kind of privacy risk there is because I don't know what's on the servers, but it's totally shocking," she said.
At Tivoli Square, cleaning crews arriving at 7 a.m. Wednesday alerted Barnes to some unusual items behind the Ruby Tuesday. Barnes found the two servers leaning against the compactor in a semi-concealed section of the retail complex. The former Tivoli Theatre is the centerpiece of the complex, which includes a Giant, Gala Hispanic Theatre, a Carvel ice cream store and smaller storefronts.
"At first, I was thinking, 'Man, who's putting this stuff here?' " Barnes said, referring to the boxes. "But when I saw the labels of the tax office, with all this stuff going on, I was like, 'Uh oh.' "
Barnes said officials from the tax office and the Office of the Chief Financial Officer called him yesterday to inquire about the whereabouts of the servers and to get them back.
"At first, they wanted them back," he said. "I told them, 'You'll have to call the police. They have them now.' "
PHOTO--"When I saw the labels of the tax office . . . I was like, 'Uh-oh,' " Barnes said.
Click to view image: '150630-PH2008020704119.jpg'
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