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Westfield's Watergate

By Marla Ailor, President

June 11, 2021

A myriad of explanations appeared in local newspapers describing a recent lawsuit filed against the Clerk-Treasurer of the City Westfield by Mayor Andy Cook which has now been dismissed. In February 2021, the Hamilton County Reporter said “Cook alleges Gossard failed to provide information on a city-wide audit...” IBJ explained, “Cook tried to gain access to the payroll system himself and couldn’t because he’s not an administrator on it” regarding the Clerk’s refusal to provide the mayor or his administration with administrator access log-in credentials for her office’s computers.” Finally, the Current reported, “…that neither Cook nor any of his staff can view the information or run reports to aid in the city’s operation.” However, Ms. Gossard and her attorneys boiled it down to this statement, “this lawsuit has primarily been about the administration’s attempt to gain “full and unfettered” access to the systems, data, and information that [her] office has a duty to protect and safeguard.”

Invoices obtained via Ms. Gossard’s office on June 4, 2021, indicate taxpayers have forked over $570,061 in attorney’s fees and billings from Baker-Tilly, BKD CPA’s, and the three different attorney’s offices representing the mayor, the Westfield City Council, and the Clerk-Treasurer’s office. The investigation, a financial examination authorized by the Mayor, has yet to report back to the Common Council or Finance Committee despite their ongoing requests for an update.

The Hamilton County Reporter poses the following question in its recent article headlined, “Westfield city data at risk?” The Clerk-Treasurer is the keeper of the municipality’s official public records and is the chief financial officer for the City of Westfield. Specific duties are defined by the Indiana Code and Municipal Code of Ordinances. No other elected municipal duties are as specifically defined as the duties of the Clerk-Treasurer. She has broad powers to hire and supervise employees and the operation of the municipal budgets. The ranking status of the Clerk-Treasurer is on equal level with the City Common Council and Mayor. The only area in which the Clerk-Treasurer does not have complete authority is setting wages and final approval of budgets. Having sent two requests to the mayor’s lead attorney Blake Burgan, with the law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, Mr. Webster requested the removal of the software from his client’s departmental computers.

The dismissal of the lawsuit resulted in the Clerk-Treasurer’s ability to “retain sole administrator-level access to Westfield’s information systems,” according to Mr. Webster and Ms. Gossard. The suspicious oddities and computer glitches may be attributed to the type of access the mayor was requesting from the Clerk-Treasurer (based on his lawsuits) because the so-called “spyware” wasn’t installed until November 19, 2020, as alleged in Mr. Webster’s letter. It certainly seems possible this type of software could provide the type of access that had been requested, but how would anyone know for sure without a proper investigation of the computer network systems? Will there be one and who will perform it?

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “All 50 states have computer crime laws; most address unauthorized access or computer trespass. Some state laws also directly address other specific types of computer crime, such as spyware, phishing, denial of service attacks, and ransomware.” Indiana computer crime laws require acts to be intentional. Some of the crimes include interference with another person’s computer access or use, the use of a computer in a scheme to defraud, improper access to a computer, system, or network, and the improper use, copy, modification, damage, or disclosure, of programs or data and Indiana Code does address it.

The city’s IT director purchased six software licenses from BeyondTrust, and the Clerk-Treasurer’s office has exactly six computers. According to her attorney, Ms. Gossard’s position has been to work cooperatively with city administration, and the installation of the software is “disturbing, unacceptable, and concerning” to her as it remains unknown who ordered the installation of the software, who installed it, and exactly who has been accessing any information. "Since the discovery of the software, it is further unknown what changes might have been made to data in the systems, compromised, or the extent of any damage."

Half-a-million dollars is a lot of money in our book. We can’t be certain what we’ve gained from the mayor’s investigation or the lawsuits, but we certainly know what we’ve lost…more than five hundred-thousand-dollars and a sense of security.

The Fiscal Conservatives of Hamilton County is a watchdog organization in Hamilton County, Indiana of residents who are volunteers focused on fiscal policy and fiscal issues. It is free of outside control by any individual, organization or group. It exists to distribute opinions on issues affecting Hamilton County residents. Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of all members of the FCoHC or its board members.

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