City E-mail Endorses Terrorism
On September 12, almost exactly 24 hours after terrorists slammed hijacked jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, an accountant in the Houston city controller's office sat at his keyboard and typed a gloating e-mail to a friend in the city legal department.
"What's your take on this bombing?" asked the sender, a slight 30-year-old man of Pakistani descent. He went on to offer his view:
"I say it's great and wonderful and probably the best thing I've seen in my life.
"The world got what it deserved.
"Persons are rotten, evil, and thrash [sic] so this is what happens when they act like that and I hope a full scale war breaks out over this."
The author got his wish and more. As military action raged later in Afghanistan, his leaked e-mail provoked a bureaucratic battle at City Hall that led to his resignation. After the worker left, superiors found that his computer contained prurient e-mails suggesting he had solicited and purchased sexual favors from a female legal department secretary.
Although the recipient of the original e-mail was his confidante, she found the terrorism message alarming enough to turn it over to her supervisor, Connie Acosta, the section chief of the department's labor division. And there the matter apparently rested for two weeks, until a staffer for Controller Sylvia Garcia was forwarded a copy of the e-mail and alerted her boss.
"I was very offended by it," recalls Garcia. "I thought it was sentiments of hate that, particularly when written the morning after such a tragic event, were very offensive and inappropriate for an employee of the city, being done on city time and using city property."
Top controller officials were stunned that in the heightened security following the attacks, Acosta had not bothered to alert them or City Attorney Anthony Hall about the e-mail.
"You can't print my reaction," says Garcia. "I was very disappointed in the lack of any response from anyone in legal, and the fact they didn't bother to tell us even though it was one of our own employees."
The sender was in the sensitive position of reconciling city bank accounts, and the controller believes the sentiments in the message raised issues of potential diversion of city funds and office security.
Garcia immediately put the employee on paid administrative leave and pressed for his firing. Her staffers notified Mayor Lee Brown's security team, which in turn contacted Police Chief Clarence Bradford. Police criminal intelligence officers launched an investigation, in conjunction with the FBI's antiterrorism task force. City Inspector General Tim Oettmeier also was alerted.
The controller then sent the mayor a memo requesting that he fire the employee, who could not be terminated from his civil service job without approval of the city's top executive.
She met with Acosta and First Assistant City Attorney Susan Taylor, who informed the controller that the employee was simply exercising freedom of speech and had committed no violations. According to City Hall sources, the two lawyers treated the matter as frivolous. They advised Garcia that "If we allow you to terminate this gentleman we will have to terminate everyone who sent an e-mail saying 'God Bless America.' " They refused to draft a memo seeking his termination and said the mayor would not sign it because the action would not be supported by law.
The controller pointed to city policy that specifically forbids "using Internet access for non-business related purposes or activities inappropriate or generally offensive in the workplace." She took her case to Brown and Hall, who both supported the legal department's position of doing nothing.
Determined to get the man out of her office, Garcia launched her own investigation. An examination of the hard drive on the employee's office computer revealed a series of deleted files containing pornography-laced e-mails.
There was a May 3 message to the woman who later received the e-mail celebrating terrorism. The man, however, had a very different subject in mind in the earlier note:
"find me a girl
I want absolutely to pay no more than $75
I don't care what color or religion
I don't want no relationship- just sex
I want girl to have weight and be pretty."
He concluded, "If she likes TV, it would be a plus."
On June 14 the man's computer correspondence indicated he'd found a satisfactory candidate for sex:
"I want to do it
But ------ needs to know I never did it and I'll need help.
Also, tell her to call me tonight if possible cause I have to make my weekend plans."
Four days later the employee sent his legal department pal an e-mail titled "read in private." It detailed a consummated liaison with the secretary he'd named in the previous message. He graphically described the sexual encounter, which left him distinctly unimpressed:
"It was not as enjoyable as persons say
Sex movie was playing while we did it and bought condoms- she chose movie
It gave a different feeling when I c- but its no big deal
I will never have sex again in my life
I needed my curiosity satisfied
And now it's satisfied, I can get more fun by watching a Disney movie
She got $80- I hope she returns my $5."
The secretary he named told police later that she had gone to the man's home, but claimed the purpose of the visit was only to buy a couch.
Another message sent by the controller's employee raises questions about his stability:
"It's time to cut myself off from the world cause I hate the world
I hope you understand
The whole world is scum according to me
And I don't want to be part of scum."
After the material was discovered, the employee resigned September 28. The Insider was unable to locate him for comment.
The controller followed up with a notice to her staff that city equipment is for business purposes only. Breaches of the regulation, warned Deputy Controller Roel Garcia, would be subject to discipline and possible dismissal.
City Attorney Hall deferred comment to his assistant Taylor. She refused to detail the department's position in the incident, saying the information constitutes a confidential attorney-client relationship.
Controller Garcia retorts that essentially the city lawyers were refusing to represent her. "I'm not sure there was a client relationship because they refused to prepare the termination memo."
Taylor says she and Hall found out about the e-mail only when the controller brought it to their attention. Even so, she rejects the idea that there was a breakdown in the legal department chain of command because Acosta did not tell superiors about it.
"I think it was a situation that simply didn't rise to that level," Taylor says.
Acosta caused a flap in August when she drafted a city code of conduct that prohibited employees from tinting their hair an unnatural color, or wearing sneakers or shoes with excessively high heels, rhinestones or holes. Acosta also specifically included prostitution among the bans.
The proposed code caused such a ruckus it was ridiculed by the city's human resources director and sent back to legal for a major rewrite. Perhaps the experience made Acosta gun-shy about the terrorism e-mail. In any case, she did not return an Insider call to explain why she failed to notify supervisors.
Taylor says she doesn't support or agree with the e-mail's content, "but the gentleman has the right to express his views."
The lawyer explains that the e-mail policy is similar to guidelines that allow incidental personal use of city telephones. Asked whether cheering for terrorists fits her definition of incidental personal use, Taylor parried: "Well, it depends on whether you are looking at the content of the message or the length of the message." She interprets the city policy as referring only to the length and frequency of a personal message, rather than its content.
One area the city e-mail policy does address specifically is pornography and profanity: Both are banned. As for those messages soliciting sexual favors from legal department employees and then commenting on the quality of services rendered, Taylor was equally dismissive.
"I wouldn't want to comment without actually seeing what it was, under the circumstances," says the attorney. "Could have been, but I wouldn't know in this particular situation whether it was or not."
"It's not," concludes Taylor, "a matter that is under investigation by the legal department."
That likely isn't the end of the episode, however. A spokesman for the inspector general says a criminal probe of the case of the torrid e-mails is continuing.
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