Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Treasurer's Office Employee, the Computer and Official Misconduct

After a jury convicted him of two counts of official misconduct in violation of 720 Illinois Compiled Statutes § 5/33–3, and “sentenced to concurrent three-year terms of imprisonment”, Jonathan Martin appealed.  People v. Martin, 2013 WL 3147643 (Illinois Appellate Court 2013). The charges arose from certain activity attributed to Martin when he was an employee of the Cook County Treasurer’s Office.  People v. Martin, supra.

The prosecution’s first witness at trial was William Kouruklis, who “had been employed there for almost 19 years.” People v. Martin, supra. He had worked “in many different capacities at the treasurer's office”, and finally became “a deputy county treasurer and the director of operations.”  People v. Martin, supra.  He explained that the treasurer’s office’s task was to “collect the $9.5 billion in annual property taxes assessed on over 1.7 million individual properties in Cook County, and then properly distribute those collected funds to over 1800 different taxing districts.” People v. Martin, supra.  To facilitate these processes, “each piece of property is assigned a property index number, or `PIN.’” People v. Martin, supra. 

The opinion explains that sometimes, the office would receive a duplicate payment or overpayment (D & O) of the property taxes owed" for a property,  which meant the taxpayer “would be entitled to a refund upon the filing and acceptance of a refund request application.” People v. Martin, supra.  The fact that a refund might be due with respect to particular property was “available to the public; the information was “provided in property tax bills, and was also available by querying the treasurer's phone system or website about the refund status of a particular PIN.” People v. Martin, supra. 

Also, employees “had access to a computer program” they could use to see if “a PIN was due a refund for a D & O payment.” People v. Martin, supra. They typically used it to assist taxpayers making inquires as to the refund status of individual properties.” People v. Martin, supra.  Employees in the D & O refund department would use this information to process refund applications submitted by taxpayers or by “third-parties working on commission to obtain refunds for taxpayers.” People v. Martin, supra. “In all such cases, the refund information . . . in the treasurer's computer files was only accessible by querying one PIN at a time.” People v. Martin, supra.  

Certain employees were authorized to access the treasurer's computer files and “obtain a list -- typically in the form of a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet file -- of all the properties in Cook County that were owed property tax refunds.” People v. Martin, supra. Kouruklis would obtain such a list “a few times” a year and “obtain separate lists of properties owed refunds for each of the prior five tax years.” People v. Martin, supra. He would obtain the list  “to analyze the effectiveness of the treasurer's collection efforts, to see how many D & O payments there were, and to see if a D & O payment in one year might be offset by a delinquency in another year.” People v. Martin, supra. 

In a five-year period, “there might be as many as 120,000 records of D & O payments.” People v. Martin, supra.  He only retrieved information for  “the prior five tax years, because there was a statute of limitations precluding a taxpayer from receiving a refund for any tax year before that time.” People v. Martin, supra.  

The D & O computer data “was secured by requiring a person to enter a user name and password that would be recognized by the treasurer's computer system as authorizing that person to access” it. People v. Martin, supra.  The authority to obtain the information was limited to Kouruklis, the Treasurer, Maria Pappas, the treasurer's chief deputies, “the chief information officer, and one or two employees of the information technology (IT) department.” People v. Martin, supra.   If other employees needed such information “for any reason, they would have to ask either Kouruklis or one of the IT employees, with all such requests typically approved by Kouruklis”.  People v. Martin, supra.  

Kouruklis worked in the treasurer's main office, which was in two floors of the County Building in downtown Chicago. People v. Martin, supra.  It was equipped with “between 44 and 48 ceiling-mounted video cameras” that were installed because of “the large amounts of money collected by the department and the need to accurately account for those funds.” People v. Martin, supra. Kouruklis described the cameras as “`casino grade,’” because “they had very powerful zoom lenses” and were “controlled by two sets of monitors and joysticks installed in” Kouruklis’ office and that of the County Treasurer. People v. Martin, supra. When “zoomed in, the cameras were capable of allowing a viewer to count money or to read `regular font size documents.’” People v. Martin, supra.  

The treasurer's office made a video recording of the live feed from these cameras, but the video quality “was not as high as the live feed.” People v. Martin, supra.  In addition to “their general use,” Kouruklis used the cameras “and the joystick in his office to monitor the office on `high collection days’ when there were a lot of cash transactions.” People v. Martin, supra.   He also used the cameras to find employees if they could not be reached by telephone at their desk.  People v. Martin, supra.  

That brings us to tothe prosecution.  On November 16, 2005, Kouruklis was using the

joystick and monitor in his office to locate Vicky Pappas, the treasurer's chief legal counsel. As he panned one of the cameras across the legal department, [he] observed [Martin] sitting at his desk working on his computer. Kouruklis had known [him] for 12 to 14 years, as [Martin] started at the treasurer's office a few years after Kouruklis. [He] had worked for Kouruklis as part of the operations team[, which meant [Martin] acted as an informal `IT facilitator’ troubleshooting employees computer problems because [he] `had enough technical savvies to go ahead and fix a problem that somebody may have had with their computer.’

By November of 2005, . . . [he] was employed in the legal department and was responsible for working on `sales in error,’ which involved errors with respect to delinquent property tax payments. This did not have anything to do with D & O payments or refunds. Nevertheless, when Kouruklis scanned [Martin’s] desk with the video camera, he observed a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet displayed on [his] computer screen. 

The spreadsheet looked familiar, and when Kouruklis zoomed in he realized [Martin] was working with a spreadsheet containing D & O refund data in the form Kouruklis semi-annually request[ed] from the IT department. To confirm this, Kouruklis checked the PIN numbers in the spreadsheet displayed on [Martin’s] screen. In each case, he found that refunds -- some in amounts `of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ -- were due on those properties.

People v. Martin, supra.  

Kouruklis later testified that he found Martin’s actions to be a

`red flag’ because: (1) nobody in the office needed that data at the time; (2) nobody else knew how to access that data; and (3) at the time, [Martin] was not working in either the refund or IT departments, or for Kouruklis. Indeed, at that time, [he] did not have authority to access the comprehensive D & O refund data and create an Excel spreadsheet of that data. Kouruklis did not know how [he] had done so.

People v. Martin, supra.  

Kouruklis continued to watch Martin on the camera and saw him do “`a lot’” of “`cutting and pasting’”, in which he highlighted information about PINs that were due refunds, copied it and pasted it “into a blank Microsoft Word document.” People v. Martin, supra.  It included information about the properties due refunds, taxpayer information, dates of prior payments and "images of checked" used to pay property taxes for a particular PIN obtained from other programs and databases."  People v. Martin, supra.

Kouruklis said Martin was “`creating a Microsoft Word document of all the history of a” PIN “`for every property.’” People v. Martin, supra.  He said there were “`100,000 records in that Excel spreadsheet’” but Martin “`was taking . . . certain ones he wanted.’” People v. Martin, supra. Kouruklis noted that when someone walked by behind Martin, his screen would “`be minimized and the sale in error screen would pop up, which was his regular duties at that time’” People v. Martin, supra.  This went on for two hours. People v. Martin, supra.  

As Kouruklis watched, this went on for a while, until he finished the Word document and emailed it and the spreadsheet to “his personal email account.” People v. Martin, supra.  He then deleted the "history of the documents he worked with, his Internet browser history,

certain `sent’ emails, the print queue, and the contents of the `recycling bin’ on his computer.” People v. Martin, supra. Martin was then asked to leave his office, which was guarded by a Sheriff’s deputy while the treasurer's office investigated what Martin had been doing. People v. Martin, supra.  It turned up the Word file and the spreadsheet. People v. Martin, supra.  At Martin’s trial, a detective testified that “the Microsoft Word document contained information regarding seven PINs, [each of which was] listed as a property owed a refund on the larger Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.” People v. Martin, supra.  

On appeal, Martin argued, among other things, that the evidence presented at trial, only a small part of which is summarized here, was not sufficient to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. People v. Martin, supra.  The court noted that when someone makes a sufficiency of the evidence argument, its task is to “review the evidence in the light most favorable to the State to determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found the elements of the crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” People v. Martin, supra.  It also noted that the statute Martin was convicted of violating makes it a crime for a public employee, acting “`in his official capacity,’” to “`[k]nowingly perform[] an act which he knows he is forbidden by law to perform’”. People v. Martin, supra (quoting 720 Illinois Compiled Statutes § 5/33–3).

The “forbidden by law” part of the offense refers to conduct that is otherwise illegal, i.e., is a crime.  People v. Martin, supra. The charges against Martin alleged he “committed the offense of computer tampering” in violation of 720 Illinois Compiled Statutes § 5/16D-3(a).  The statute makes it a crime “knowingly” to access “a computer or any part thereof” without being authorized to do so or in excess of “the authority granted to him” and thereby obtain “data or services.”  On appeal, Martin did not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to prove that he was a public employee, that the

relevant acts . . . were taken in his official capacity, that he performed those acts knowingly, that he knew computer tampering was a crime, or knew that accessing comprehensive D & O refund data without authority would constitute the offense of computer tampering. Nor does [he] seriously contest the evidence that he did not . . . have authority to access comprehensive D & O data. . . . Instead, [Martin] contends the State failed to prove he actually knew he did not have authority to access comprehensive D & O data, such that the State also failed to prove [he] knew he was committing the offense of computer tampering when he accessed that data.

People v. Martin, supra (emphasis in the original).

More precisely, Martin argued that while there “was a great deal of evidence” as to his lack of authority, there was

`no testimony . . . as to whether . . . anyone ever informed [him] he had no access or authority to access the duplicate and overpayment database.’ He . . . argues there was no evidence [he] was ever shown the help desk requests removing his access to various programs and databases, nor was there any evidence that he was provided with an employee's manual, policy statement, or written memo informing him of his lack of authority to access comprehensive D & O data. Finally, he complains there was no `pop-up warning’ on his computer advising him of his lack of authority to access that data.

People v. Martin, supra.

The court found these arguments “unpersuasive”, because knowledge “`may be, and ordinarily is, proven circumstantially.’” People v. Martin, supra (quoting People v. Ortiz, 196 Ill.2d 236, 260 (Illinois Supreme Court 2001)). In other words, knowledge can be inferred from the facts proven in court. People v. Martin, supra.

The appellate court noted the prosecution presented evidence that Martin’s duties “had absolutely nothing to do with D & O payment refunds.” People v. Martin, supra.  It also noted that, at trial, the prosecution presented evidence showing that Martin

made efforts to conceal his use of the comprehensive D & O data by `minimizing”’ the Word document and the Excel spreadsheet on his computer screen when people would pass behind him, and by deleting files and emails containing this data. [He] was also observed deleting the history of the documents he had worked with that day, as well as his internet browser history, the print queue, and the contents of the `recycling bin’ on his computer.

This evidence supports an inference that [Martin] knew he did not have authority to access comprehensive D & O data on that date.

People v. Martin, supra. 

Finally, the prosecution also introduced evidence showing that prior to November, 2005, Martin had submitted a

help desk request seeking permission to access the D & O refund data, but only with respect to querying a single PIN at a time. As the State notes, the fact [he] previously sought limited access to information regarding refunds one PIN at a time, supports an inference that [Martin] knew he did not have the authority to access comprehensive D & O data about over 100,000 separate PINs, when he later did so. . . .

People v. Martin, supra. 

For these and other reasons, the appellate court affirmed Martin’s conviction and sentence. People v. Martin, supra. 

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