LAKEWOOD, Wash. - The KING 5 Investigators have found that as far back as 2007, IT staff members at the Washington Military Department complained about state workers' personal use of government computers. The IT specialists believed employees of the agency kept so much personal data on state computers that it jeopardized state business and wasted tax dollars spent to fix computer problems associated with the personal use.
The problems center on the Military Department’s Emergency Management Division, located at Camp Murray in Lakewood. This portion of the agency is responsible for coordinating resources in emergencies such as the Nisqually earthquake, tsunami warnings and dangerous snowstorms.
Internal emails obtained by KING 5 News show that for at least 5 years, IT staff asked their managers to put a stop to the misuse of computers. They complained the volume of personal data on state equipment contributed greatly to hard drive failures, servers filling up and the introduction of viruses into the system.
By 2010 the problem got worse. An assistant director wrote some staff had "huge amounts” of files that have "nothing to do with work" and to "clear the stuff off their computers" right away.
That didn't happen. Last year, six months after the deadline, the IT manager wrote it was still a "massive problem". He also sent an email to his IT staff to say upper managers weren’t acting to stop the abuse.
“You are correct that without management’s support this problem will never be resolved and that is why I continue to approach my supervisor and those supervisors responsible for violators,” wrote Dennis Trout, IT Operations Branch Manager. “Once I have reported it to the first line supervisor and my supervisor, the ball is literally out of my court or hands.”
Within the 300-person agency, KING 5 was able to obtain 2010 and 2011 computer records for 90 random employees. Of the 90, the reporters found 70 of them in violation of state ethics laws regarding the use of state equipment. That’s nearly 80 percent of the people investigated in violation.
All state employees receive training on state ethics laws related to the use of state equipment and resources.
"It's a state resource and if your server fails your basic business and information is jeopardized (and that’s) not acceptable,” said Rep. Sam Hunt (D-Olympia), Chair of the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee. This committee is responsible for considering legislation related to ethics in government. "My first reaction is, where's the common sense? As a state employee you should know what is right and what is wrong."
The Military Department’s Director of Public Affairs, Rick Patterson, canceled a scheduled in-person interview with KING 5 and video opportunity. Patterson said that wouldn’t add value to the report. Instead, he issued a written statement. “The violations discovered during (internal computer) audits are being corrected and policies covering computer use are undergoing routine annual review,” wrote Patterson. “The reviews found that nearly 100 employees had, to some degree, violated the agency policy on the use of the Internet, Electronic Mail and Computer Systems. Though a small number were found to have been saving files for some time and to have accumulated significant volumes of material, most of the discoveries were determined to be 'de minimus' (insignificant) in scale.”
KING 5 found it wasn’t just the storage of data that was problematic. State law allows for limited, infrequent use of phones and computers for quick calls and messages. But the records show many employees were also breaking ethics laws by conducting personal business on government equipment, on government time. The conclusions were drawn by analyzing one thousand pages of computer records, internal emails, videos, and interviewing seven current and former Military Department employees.
In the analysis and reporting, KING found:
• An employee working on a farm business
• An employee working on wine business
• An employee working on a complete home remodel
• An employee working on a degree from Pierce College. Three years worth of schoolwork was stored on her computer which included lab assignments, Spanish homework and transcripts. The employee was observed on several occasions doing school work on the job as well as asking for homework help from co-workers
• Dozens of employees storing personal financial records such as household budgets, tax filings, stock trade spreadsheets, property assessments, banking documents, and loan applications.
• Employees with complete music and photo libraries.
• Employees playing video games at work, including Facebook’s Farmville, solitaire, and simulated hunting games.
• An employee, Search and Rescue Coordinator Chris Long, with 4,660 “favorite” websites bookmarked on his work computer at one point. Computer experts report the average number of bookmarked sites is 50 to 100. The majority of Long's sites were not work-related. They included forums about pistols, rifles, ammunition, warfare tactics, German and Israeli military history, and conservative political opinion sites. Long told KING 5 News he looked at the sites during his work breaks. But sources tell the reporters they observed him spending hours on these sites during work hours. The KING 5 Investigators have also obtained four videos of the Long, on the job, surfing sites unrelated to work, including a military tactics message board.
"That would cause me to go, 'How much time do you have to have 4,000 sites? (To spend the time to) put them on (the computer) and how much time do you have to follow 4,000? You're here to do a job, not to build an Internet library,'" said Hunt.
KING 5 News obtained an email written by an IT staff member a year ago which expressed frustration with employees violating IT policies by wasting time at work on personal business and hobbies and managers ignoring the abuse.
“Many users are on Facebook most of the day, play Farmville, watch Mariners and Seahawk games, stream music and surf YouTube,” wrote IT specialist Edward Toft. “IT staff are tired of reporting violations to IT management and nothing happening.”
When asked if workers found to be conducting personal business on government time were able to finish their work assignments, Patterson said managers had not noticed a lack of productivity.
"In the scale of the agency's mission, this is not a significant event that impeded work product. Poor judgment was exercised by a small number of people who engaged in activities such as playing computer games at work, but overall we have a great group of employees who believe in the important work they are doing for the state," said Patterson.
By telephone, Patterson did admit the agency dragged its feet in addressing the misuse.
“Yes, we made a mistake in taking too long to get it under control but we’ve learned a lesson,” said Patterson. “Supervisors were telling managers to enforce the policies but managers weren’t reporting back.” Patterson said about a dozen people have received verbal reprimands and they're planning expanded computer audits to ascertain the current extent of equipment misuse, if any.
The KING 5 Investigators have also learned the State Auditor’s Office is investigating the Military Department for improper use of state equipment. That report is expected to be made public soon.
"We try to draw a fairly bright line on what's ethical and what's not and what's proper use of resources and what's improper use. And at all times I think state employees should follow that,” said Hunt. "The basic thing is these are state resources and we should treat them as such."