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Emails show Allegheny County Council staff investigated potential snooping

| Sunday, July 27, 2014, 10:40 p.m.

Allegheny County Council's staff began investigating potential email snooping months before its members asked for a separate computer server to increase security, emails turned over to the Tribune-Review show.

Council's solicitor, Jack Cambest, took the Trib to court to block access to minutes, notes or recordings of executive sessions where council members discussed concerns about whether County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's office looked at emails, calendars and documents. Fitzgerald and his staff said they never snooped on council.

Cambest turned over the emails when Common Pleas Judge W. Terrence O'Brien reviewed documents related to the meetings. Cambest and Trib attorney Ronald D. Barber of Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Gefsky agreed on what could be made public.

“It's concerning that County Council required us to go to court in order to get to a reasonable result. The Trib has seen this with other government units where there are documents that should be regularly turned over,” Barber said.

Council is considering bids from two companies to protect internal communications. Members on March 17 issued a request for proposals to develop a computer server separate from the executive and other offices. Each proposal could cost about $30,000.

On Jan. 29, Feb. 12 and March 12, members of the Executive Committee met in closed-door sessions to discuss the snooping, council members said. Those issues should not have been discussed during the executive sessions, Barber said, arguing the meetings violated the state's Sunshine Act, which sets limits on when public bodies can meet in private.

“That's the biggest problem with the Sunshine Act; there's often no way to enforcement without going to court,” said Kim de Bourbon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, adding there's often no way to learn what is discussed during the meetings.

The emails show concern by council members stretching back to Jan. 27.

“I do hope the Executive Committee will address two issues on the 29th. One, the cooperation of our county police in assuring our offices and staff are not compromised by listening devices or other technology,” Councilman Bill Robinson, D-Hill District, wrote in all capital letters in a Jan. 27 email to council members and staff.

Robinson's second request and the rest of the email were redacted.

When the Jan. 29 executive session ended, Walt Szymanski, director of budget and administration for council, sent an email asking members to send to staff a list of who is receiving email or calendar forwards. That list was not provided.

“It has come to our attention that a review of email forwarding and calendar notification forwarding has not been done recently,” Szymanski wrote.

Cambest did not release a “Memorandum that was shared with Allegheny County Council members, at an executive session concerning the information that was developed between Allegheny County Council staff and the IT Department of Allegheny County,” the solicitor wrote in a letter to Barber.

“Finally, no minutes are made of Allegheny County Council committee meetings or its executive sessions,” Cambest wrote.

Minutes are taken during council committees and approved at the beginning of meetings. Council members told the Trib that staff members took notes during the executive sessions.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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