Metro-East News

Was it a data breach? Madison County grand jury to probe county FOI office

A Madison County subpoena was issued to the county’s Freedom of Information Office to send a representative to appear before a grand jury Jan. 25, County Administrator Doug Hulme confirmed Thursday.

The subpoena comes less than a week after a public corruption task force formed by Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons raided the County Board and Information Technology offices

Hulme declined to say whether the subpoena is connected to the raid on county offices or who would be sent to testify before the grand jury. Gibbons could not be reached for comment.

Gibbons, a Democrat, and County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler, a Republican, have declined to provide any information about the raid or say what the task force was seeking. At the time, police officers were seen taking computers out of targeted offices. Prenzler has said his computer was not taken.

Police also searched the office of the county’s public relations manager, Cynthia Ellis, who formerly served as the county’s freedom of information officer.

Ellis was appointed to the position by Prenzler. She was removed in August as the county’s FOIA officer after e-mails from Gibbons’ office were released that had been requested by a former secretary in Gibbon’s office, Andrew Kane.

Kane is the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against Gibbons’ office. Kane alleged in the suit Hendricks harassed him, then retaliated against him by firing him. After an arbitrator returned him to his job, Hendricks sent him to an isolated office in Wood River, the suit says.

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On July 7, 2017, Kane requested emails regarding betting pools in the state’s attorney’s office, campaigning through the use of county email during work hours and any discussions by Gibbons’ employees about Kane. Kane sent his FOIA request to both Ellis and Jeff Ezra, an assistant state’s attorney who headed the civil division in the prosecutors’ office.

Ellis received the emails from Chris Bethel, the manager of network services. Ellis released the emails to Kane on July 20. The BND obtained copies of the emails earlier this week.

There were also emails from a judge and former judge and state’s attorney staffers regarding a fantasy baseball draft in early March 2012.

Two weeks later, Gibbons wrote an email to his staff, informing them they are prohibited from gambling on county property.

Also in the release of emails was an invitation sent to the state’s attorney’s staff asking them to attend a fundraiser for Illinois state senator and former Madison County State’s Attorney Bill Haine on April 12, 2012, for “free beer and free food.”

A week after Ellis released the emails to Kane, Ezra, the assistant state’s attorney, sent a response to him stating they didn’t have any records responsive to his request.

The emails were contained on a single server that was accessible to anyone in the county’s IT department. The system was in place before Prenzler he took office in late 2016.

“Any constitutional (elected) office holder could have hosted his/her own emails but the custom in Madison County was that all emails were hosted in one system. Each elected official knew that he/she had the right to host his/her own emails,” Prenzler wrote in response to a reporter’s written question.

When it was discovered the emails had already been released to Kane, Ezra wrote a letter to Kane requesting their return.

“It is my understanding that you have received materials referable to the state’s attorney’s office pursuant to a request made either to the Madison County Administrative Office or to the Information Technology Department,” Ezra wrote in a Sept. 18 letter. “Any, and all, information materials and/or documents you have received from either of those departments was done so in error.”

He then added that he knew Kane was not obligated under the law to return them.

Prenzler said the county is now working on moving to a “hybrid email hosting” server that would allow elected officials to have control over their own email records.

This release of records to Kane occurred during the same time the BND was seeking records involving an investigation by former judge James Hackett involving sexual harassment claims by Kristen Poshard.

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Kurt Prenzler

Poshard, the daughter of former SIUC Chancellor and U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard, a powerful downstate Democrat, was appointed to head Madison County’s Community Development Department by the Republican Prenzler. Her controversial appointment ended within weeks when she stopped coming into the office. She was put on leave in August, and fired in October.

The requested texts and emails under FOIA were between Poshard; her husband, Thomas Lech, an Edwardsville attorney; and County Board member Phil Chapman.

The BND is currently suing the county to obtain copies of those records. That suit is pending.

The BND also sought information related to “a data breach” on Oct. 18. The newspaper referred to an Aug. 18 memo from Gibbons regarding the “possible breach of confidential communications and data.” This was the same information that had been released to Kane.

In an email released as part of the newspaper’s request, IT Director Rob Dorman wrote to Gibbons, “What you are terming a data breach is the process for responding to an FOIA, and Jeff Ezra of your office was aware of the requests starting July 10.”

Dorman continued: “Going forward, I am going to ask Kurt (Prenzler) to ask that Cynthia (Ellis) provide records to any department head or office for review prior to them being released.”

In the months following Prenzler’s swearing in, Gibbons posted “no trespassing” signs on his office doors. He stated that he believed there was an unauthorized entry into his private office and he was certain someone had sat at his desk. A police investigation was conducted but no results were released, and no charges were issued.

Beth Hundsdorfer: 618-239-2570, @bhundsdorfer

George Pawlaczyk: 618-239-2625, @gapawlaczyk

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