FBI Investigating Search of RTC Whistleblower’s Computer
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The FBI is looking into whether the search of a whistleblower’s computer records at the Resolution Trust Corp. violated federal privacy laws, according to officials at the savings-and-loan bailout agency.
An electronic mail message from a top legal official in the RTC’s Denver office directed a technician to ″get into″ and copy material in the desktop computer of Bruce Pederson, an agency attorney who criticized management policies in testimony to Congress last summer.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the E-Mail directive, from assistant general counsel Barbara Shangraw to computer technician John Waechter. It reads: ″I have been requested by D.C. to get into Bruce Pederson’s word perfect. Please copy into a directory for me what Bruce has in his word perfect.″
Anne Freeman, an RTC spokeswoman in Washington, confirmed that Pederson’s WordPerfect files - meaning documents created with WordPerfect Corp. software - were searched.
Shangraw declined to comment, and referred a reporter’s telephone calls to Freeman.
The FBI has already interviewed Pederson, and agents told him they intend to talk to Waechter and others involved in the matter, according to sources familiar with the case who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
″I can’t comment on any ongoing investigation,″ said Dick Schussler, a Denver FBI spokesman.
The federal law that prohibits unauthorized wire-tapping was expanded in 1986 to bar unlawful entry into a person’s work computer system and electronic mailbox. This statute covers both government and private workers, although there are permissible invasions of government computers if the worker is suspected of violating fraud or international security laws.
″That was more of an employee-supervisor activity,″ Freeman said. ″We only know this did occur. ... As we understand the wiretap statute, that is for E-Mail interception, which is a crime. But with computer files, nobody needs to be authorized to do this because federal managers have the inherent authority to ensure that government employees are doing government work on government time.″
According to documents obtained by the AP, a message appears on RTC computer screens every time the machines are turned on warning that ″Whoever knowingly accesses a computer without authorization″ faces both fine and imprisonment.
Penalties for violating the computer privacy law can range up to five years in prison.
In testimony to Congress last summer, Pederson criticized changes in the RTC’s approach to prosecuting officials from failed savings and loan institutions.
Pederson reported to the Denver inspector general’s office that his computer had been raided sometime on or about March 12.
As evidence, Pederson presented the E-Mail message, a printed copy of which was found and passed along by other RTC employees, in which Waechter was instructed to gain access to his files. Doing so would have entailed bypassing the employee’s own password to his computer.
According to RTC officials, when Pederson confronted Shangraw about the matter, she summoned him to a meeting in her office that was also attended by Ellis Merritt, a senior attorney with the Denver office.
In that meeting, Pederson said, Shangraw did not deny gaining access to Pederson’s computer, and insisted that the matter had been reviewed and approved by ″someone in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington, D.C.″
Instead, Pederson said, Shangraw criticized him for having several computer files relating to personal matters, and told him he could face disciplinary action if he used the computer again for anything other than RTC work.
When Pederson asked Shangraw on what authority she entered his computer system, she replied that ″managerial prerogative″ allowed her to do so, Pederson said.
Along with looking into Shangraw’s actions, investigators are trying to determine whether her reference to ″D.C.″ meant someone in Washington may have instructed her to get the files.
Freeman insisted that Shangraw acted on her own, although she said the Denver official likely consulted with the Justice Department and the RTC’s Inspector General before doing so.