Mayor’s statement about IT invoices contradicted by multiple sources

Council, former mayor, police chief, IT company share comments


A statement sent by Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson last week about a set of invoices submitted to the city by IT company Elias Technologies has come into question by current and former city leaders, city employees and Elias Technologies issuing statements contradicting many of the mayor’s claims.

Two invoices from Elias Technologies to the City of Fairhope were recently given to The Courier that appear to show work equipment used by former city employees Sherry Sullivan and Jennifer Fidler was sent to be examined and searched by Elias, a IT forensics company, at the request of Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson.

The invoices from the company both have the same invoice number, billing date and case title, but the details and amounts charged for the work differ between the two.

Mayor Wilson’s statement about the invoices

In a post on her blog entitled “Sensationalized Headlines and Innuendos,” Wilson laid out the following:

“Questions have been raised regarding invoicing for IT services as well as about surveillancing (sic) of city employees. I wish to answer those questions to the extent I am allowed without divulging confidential information. My comments are also tempered by my constant efforts to safeguard the privacy of current and former city employees.

“Elias Technologies was hired to perform internet security services for the City and the Police Department. The fact that the City entered a contract with Elias, and the amount of the contract, is not confidential. Those facts can be released to the public and the media, and I will be glad to continue to discuss those issues publicly.

“However, because the services provided by Elias were part of a process to update and improve the security systems of the city, I do not intend to discuss the actual details of that work. If someone with the City has released such confidential information to the media, that would be a serious breach of the city’s security. The invoices that have been released to certain media outlets contain confidential security information and I respectfully request that all media outlets use the leaked information in a responsible manner.

‘When I called this to the attention of Elias’

“I, in my role and capacity as mayor, asked questions about some of the language in the Elias invoices, which may have caused some confusion.  I would like to clear up any confusion to the extent that I can do so without revealing information that would compromise the security of the city’s IT systems.

“Elias contracted with the City to perform security services as described in memorandum called ‘scope of work.’ Elias agreed to perform those specific services for a total amount not to exceed $35,000. Unfortunately, Elias performed additional services that were not described in the scope of work, and Elias billed for those services. I did not receive an invoice indicating that this additional work had been performed until well after those services had been performed. When I called this to the attention of Elias, the company redacted those charges and submitted a second invoice containing charges for only those services specifically described in the scope of work. Elias willingly agreed to remove the disputed charges, and Elias will not be compensated for those charges. Thus, by bringing this to the attention of Elias, I saved the City several thousand dollars. I considered the issue a non-controversial and routine day-to-day function of my role as Mayor. The City Council does not necessarily need to be notified of these ongoing security procedures, but I am happy to discuss these issues with any Councilman who desires to do so.

‘A reasonable measure taken by most, if not all, municipalities’

“As with most private and government organizations, when an employee leaves the City, their computer must be processed. This is done for reasons of routine efficiency, security, and in some cases, in anticipation of litigation for any employee, both terminated and those leaving voluntarily. This process has been in place long before I took office and will continue to be in place long after I leave. To the extent that a former employee’s computer was processed as a result of a security measure, or in anticipation of litigation, it is not appropriate for me to comment. However, this is a reasonable measure taken by most, if not all, municipalities and counties.

“To clear up any confusion, Elias was not hired for purposes of processing the computers or devices used by former employees. That job is handled by in-house IT professionals working for the City. To the extent that Elias attempted to, or did perform such services, I will not approve any charge related to those functions submitted by Elias. Due to the confidential nature of the work performed, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on the exact nature of the work performed on former employees’ computers or devices but I will say this practice has been in place with our City before I took office.

“Moreover, Elias’ scope of work did not include taking any part in the implementation of any other security measures taken by the City, such as the keystroke software that has been publicly discussed and criticized in some circles. I have no plans to involve Elias in this particular security program in the future.

’Sensationalized headlines and innuendos’

“Unfortunately, certain media outlets have chosen to take this relatively minor billing issue, which was easily corrected, and blown it out of proportion with sensationalized headlines and innuendos. This is a perfect example of the media trying to hype an issue when there really was no controversy in the first place.

“Furthermore, any insinuation of my being under investigation is patently false.  It is easy to claim and  and publish accusations without any regard for the truth while putting me in the difficult position of having to prove a negative.”

Former mayor, police chief comments

Comments from former Fairhope Mayor Tim Kant and Fairhope Police Chief Joe Petties contradict some of the claims made in Wilson’s statement.

With regards to Wilson’s statement that the practice of searching former employees’ computers had been in place before she took office, Kant said there had never been an established policy to do that for every former employee.

“When an employee would depart, we would wipe the computers and make sure everything was off of them before they were given to a new employee, but nothing was ever done to search former employees’ computers as an established policy,” Kant said.

Kant said to the best of his knowledge, he could only remember a few times in which an employee’s computer was searched and criminal matters were the start of those investigations.

“In the 16 years I was mayor, I can only think of one or two times that any computers or equipment would have been searched like that, and criminal investigations were involved there,” Kant said. “It was in no way standard practice that was done on every departing employee. That is just false.”

In an interview with WABF 1480’s Lori DuBose, Petties contradicts Wilson’s claim that an insinuation of her “being under investigation is patently false.”

When asked for comments about the ongoing invoice issue, Petties said he cannot comment because there is an open investigation.

“I understand that there is an investigation going on right now, so I am not able to comment,” Petties said.

Later in the interview, Petties again uses the open investigation as a reason not to comment further.

“There is an investigation going on with this, so it’s best that I not make a comment one way or the other on it,” Petties said.

Council comments

Fairhope City Council President Jack Burrell commented on several issues on behalf of the council via email.

Burrell wrote the council was unaware of most of the actions taken by Wilson in investigating the equipment used by Sullivan and Fidler, and said they are still unsure why the search was necessary.

“We do not know,” Burrell wrote. “The council was not involved in or informed of the Mayor’s decision to search this equipment. Additionally, the Fairhope Police department was unaware that these searches were being conducted. It would be unusual for the executive branch of our government to conduct an investigation without the knowledge of the police department.”

Burrell questioned Wilson’s assertion that she was the one who discovered the issue with the original invoice and some of Elias Technologies’ work being outside the scope of work.

“It is my understanding that the City Treasurer informed Elias that some of the work performed was outside the scope of the resolution adopted by the Council after receiving the original invoice,” Burrell wrote. “The Mayor did not discuss the need for the searches, nor did the Mayor advise the council that searches were being done.”

Burrell said he was unsure if similar searches were being done on equipment used by former IT technician Tanner Bonner or if a policy had been established that every departing employee’s equipment would be searched in the same fashion as Sullivan and Fidler’s.

“We do not know,” Burrell wrote. “The council sets policy and we have not established this policy. We cannot imagine why that would be necessary, unless the police department had a valid reason, in which case these funds could be used.”

Emails between mayor, IT director and Elias Technologies

Wilson fired Sullivan and Fidler on Feb. 24 and according the original invoice sent to the city from Elias Technologies, the company picked up Fidler's city cell phone and computer hard drive, as well as Sullivan's hard drive on Feb. 26, a Sunday.

Emails obtained from a confidential source by The Courier show Wilson did have knowledge of work being performed by the company prior to receiving the original invoice from Elias Technologies.

On Feb. 27, Fairhope IT Director Jeff Montgomery copied Wilson on an email to Elias Technologies' employee Dan Dollarhide asking for a status update on the search of those devices.

"Can you give us an update on the phone dump and the hard drive imaging?" Montgomery asked.

Dollarhide responded on Feb. 28 to Montgomery and Wilson that the phone that had belonged to Fidler "had little to offer."

"The phone data was extracted and parsed using a Cellebrite UFED and Oxygen Forensics Suite, but provided almost no data," Dollarhide wrote. "In short, that phone is very old and had little to offer."

With regards to Fidler and Sullivan's hard drives, Dollarhide said the process was still ongoing.

"The Fidler hard drive was imaged and has been running through the indexing process to view the information in a program called Magnet IEF for the last 20 hours," Dollarhide wrote. "I will be able to do targeted searches of that drive when it completes. The Sullivan hard drive has not been imaged yet. It fails to be recognized when attached via hardware write blocker, software write blocker, or even directly. I think the only thing left to try is reinstalling it in the computer and booting for a live acquisition. It is an SSHD, but is acting like a drive with a bad arm. I will stay at it."

Elias Technologies statement

K. Gus Dimitrelos, the CEO of Elias Technologies, released a statement that also contradicts many of Wilson’s assertions about what services were performed for the city and how they were performed.

The statement reads:

“Any implication by Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson that she was unaware of services being performed by Elias Technologies, or that those services were not requested by her, are false.

“Elias Technologies provides digital forensic services, training and electronic discovery services to Fortune 500 companies and government agencies at all levels - both domestically and internationally. Elias Technologies and its associates have a 12-year history of providing technical and forensic assistance to law enforcement agencies within this region, and it based on that reputation we were contacted by Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson’s staff to meet. No personal or professional relationship existed between Mayor Wilson and any of our personnel prior to her office contacting us and requesting a meeting in December of 2016. During that meeting on the eventing of December 20, 2016, Mayor Wilson enthusiastically requested assessment services by Elias Technologies on behalf of the City of Fairhope.

‘Her perception people within her city government were leaking information’

“After the initial meeting, all further communications were both in person and electronic communications. In the following months we attempted to define a scope for the contract in an initial SOW - statement of work. Much of the communication from the Mayor was focused on her perception people within her city government were leaking information to outside parties, and she was determined to locate those offenders. A conference call was scheduled with the Mayor and other Elias Technologies personnel to distill the City’s need of our services into a cohesive contract SOW, but when the time came for the call the Mayor did not make herself available. Ultimately, a generic SOW was created which allowed for cyber services and assessments of the areas of concern the Mayor deemed problematic via an email exchange.

“Often the initial scope of work may be limited by the prospective client’s understanding of the technical aspects of cyber security and digital forensic concepts. As such, included in our statement of work with the City of Fairhope is ‘those concerns were enumerated specifically as, but may not be limited to: Police Department network architecture that may compromise sensitive and evidentiary data; Telecommunications flow that places an extended burden on Police Communications resource; Electronic Mail system being reconfigured to realize financial benefit and increased security; and to provide general cyber security support and assistance as requested.’ Also, our normal contracted duties with all clients including the City of Fairhope is to, ‘Perform any and all services generally performed by contractor in contractor’s usual line of business, required or requested by the city…’

‘The request to perform those services for the city came directly from Mayor Wilson and no one else’

The SOW to provide additional cyber services to be requested encompasses all forensic services on mobile devices, network devices and computers. As a company, we are routinely engaged by clients to image and preserve digital evidence from phones, computers and work accounts of terminated employees. In this instance, the request to perform those services for the City came directly from Mayor Wilson and no one else. Imaging services were performed on three devices owned by the City of Fairhope at the request of Mayor Wilson. Those activities were detailed explicitly and transparently on the invoice sent to City Treasurer Deborah Smith via email, and memorialized through signed forms documenting the chain of custody of those devices and the consent to search them. We thoroughly account for billed hours to assist in auditing contract services rendered at a later date, and because we take seriously the responsibility of accepting public money.

‘the Mayor, playing the role of investigator’

“Under normal circumstances the analysis of device data for investigative purposes is undertaken by a technician in concert with an investigator with a clearly defined search parameter. Elias Technologies performs data extraction, but does not play the role of investigator. In this case, the Mayor, playing the role of investigator, provided some names of persons she believed to have been in contact with employees and email accounts through which she believed City information was being mishandled. No evidence of mishandled information was ever identified.

‘Mayor Wilson expressed the detailed invoice services performed was problematic’

“While the services performed clearly meet legal standards and were performed only upon request of Mayor Wilson, City Treasurer Deborah Smith expressed concern that some of the work performed was not specifically defined in the initial Statement of Work. Mayor Wilson expressed the detailed invoice services performed was problematic. Wishing to foster a good working relationship within all offices of the City government, we refunded the hours spent on those tasks to the City of Fairhope’s account as a courtesy - even though they were performed at the Mayor’s request and are within the scope of providing general cyber security support and assistance as requested. A new invoice was emailed to the Treasurer to reflect the account balance change in the City’s favor.

“Other services not specifically requested described in the Statement of Work were taken on by Elias Technologies. During a meeting with the Fairhope IT Director, it was requested that we assist in the development of IT policy guidelines for the City. While this was not spelled out in the Statement of Work, the development of IT policy in regard to the usage of network resources is the absolute first line of defense of a network, and as such, provided a clear benefit to the City. Two drafts of proposed policy guidelines were delivered to IT Director Jeff Montgomery to satisfy that request.

‘the Mayor requested that future invoices sent to the City not contain details of the time worked’

“During a meeting at City Hall on May 16, 2017 the Mayor requested that future invoices sent to the City not contain details of the time worked. We routinely accept client requests to tailor the invoice format to their common practices, which may include adding or removing content from the invoice; however,changes to the invoice format does not change our practice of maintaining detailed records of hours worked.

‘has not been returned to us with a signature’

“We have attempted to stay focused on solutions which will best assist the Police Department in fulfilling its mission. To that end, it was recommended to the Mayor that she task the Chief of Police with assigning an investigator to handle any internal investigations. An addendum for the contract was written to direct Elias Technologies to perform forensic services at the discretion of the Chief of Police or his designee at a per-defined hourly rate under the current agreement. That addendum was delivered to the Mayor’s office on June 23, 2017 but has not been returned to us with a signature.

‘to avoid being conscripted into any more of the City’s unfortunate political battles.’

“Elias Technologies is a non-partisan contractor working amid a heated political climate in the City of Fairhope. We contracted with the City of Fairhope - not any one person, office or position. We look forward to achieving contracted goals and to then conclude our business with the City of Fairhope to avoid being conscripted into any more of the City’s unfortunate political battles.