September 13, 2005 in City

West gets back city computer

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The city-owned computer used by Spokane Mayor Jim West has been returned to him for continued use, allowing automatic obliteration of deleted files on the device’s disk drive.

Those files could include e-mail, images, documents or Web site addresses.

The return of the mayor’s computer – potentially a key piece of evidence in abuse-of-public-trust allegations leveled against West – came before the City Council voted last week to spend $15,000 for its own investigation. The exact date of the computer’s return wasn’t disclosed.

A Bellevue, Wash., attorney hired by the city for the investigation says he wants an expert to examine the mayor’s computer hard drive in an attempt to determine if city computer-use policies were violated.

A detailed examination of unused space on the mayor’s computer would show deleted files and list Web sites he has visited or erased.

City Council President Dennis Hession expressed mild disgust and surprise Monday when told West’s government-owned computer had been returned to him for use.

“I thought it was locked up in a cabinet in the city attorney’s office,” Hession said.

Now, the city apparently will have to ask the FBI to provide a copy of the mayor’s computer hard drive as it existed on May 6.

The FBI seized and copied the mayor’s City Hall computer after it launched a public corruption investigation into complaints West offered city jobs, appointments and perks to young men he met on a gay Web site.

The FBI also got a federal search warrant to enter West’s home on July 27 and confiscate three personal computers owned by him.

No criminal charges have been filed.

West, facing a likely recall election in November, has apologized for his conduct but maintained he has done nothing illegal.

The return of the mayor’s City Hall computer was disclosed Friday by Assistant City Attorney Milt Rowland, who said the city attorney’s office is prepared to release copies of files on the hard drive.

West and his attorneys are taking legal steps in an attempt to block that move and keep the public from seeing what is on the hard drive of the mayor’s computer.

The case has been assigned to visiting Superior Court Judge Richard Miller. A hearing on the issues hasn’t been scheduled, but could be held within a month.

In a sworn court affidavit, the mayor said his City Hall computer contains downloaded Internet files that are “purely personal in nature,” and the public has no right to see them.

Those files, West’s affidavit said, “would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (are) not of legitimate concern to the public.”

Furthermore, West said, there is information on his City Hall computer that does not “relate to the conduct of a governmental or proprietary function.” West has not said why he would keep private files on a publicly owned computer, in apparent violation of City Hall policies.

The city’s policy on computers and e-mail, adopted in February 2002, states that City Hall computers are for public, not personal, uses.

“Electronic data … are the property of the City and may be accessed by members of the public under various state or federal laws,” according to city personnel policy “HR-55.”

“Such data should be considered information available to the public,” states the policy.

The Spokesman-Review, in a public records request filed in early May, asked for a copy of the hard drives of any publicly owned computer used by West.

A “mirrored” or “cloned” copy of the hard drive would allow a forensic examination of the unallocated and “file slack space” where deleted data resides. That deleted data, experts say, ultimately is written over and destroyed when new files are created or downloaded through continued use of the computer.

Attorney Duane Swinton, representing the newspaper, said it is his opinion that the city is essentially destroying public records by allowing West to continue to use his computer, altering the unallocated space and its deleted files.

Rowland did not say why West’s computer was returned to him or who ordered that action.

Former City Attorney Mike Connelly seized the mayor’s computer in early May and appointed a five member board to conduct an internal investigation.

But that board dissolved before its second meeting, largely over issues of conflict of interest.

The City Council passed a resolution on Aug. 1 to assume control of the investigation to determine if West “violated city policies and standards including, but not limited to, policies regarding computer usage and or hiring practices.”

West named Howard Delaney as acting city attorney after Connelly resigned, effective Aug. 5.

Rowland said he was not aware that continued use of the computer by West would destroy deleted files in its unallocated space – public records sought by the newspaper.

Files on a temporary City Hall computer used by West were “ghosted over,” or transferred to his permanent computer, when it was returned to the mayor, the city attorney said.

An hour after a telephone conference on the subject, Rowland said he would ask the FBI to provide the city with a copy of the cloned hard drive its agents made when West’s computer was seized in May.


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