Instant messages and other documents released by Elias Technologies to the Fairhope City Council show Mayor Karin Wilson was directly involved in investigating equipment belonging to former city employees Sherry Sullivan and Jennifer Fidler.
While Wilson had previously denied much direct involvement with the company regarding the investigation, the instant messages show months of communication between Wilson and Elias Technologies employee Dan Dollarhide.
In the messages and emails, Wilson asks for the searches on Fidler and Sullivan’s equipment, as well as searches into Council President Jack Burrell’s personal email, searches on communications involving Burrell and former Mayor Tim Kant, searches into a private citizen’s IP address, a request to sweep several city offices for surveillance equipment and repeated acknowledgement that her requests were outside the scope of work for the contract with Elias.
Suspicion of leaks
The documents obtained by The Courier from a confidential source show Wilson was highly concerned about “internal leaks” happening within the city.
On Feb. 14 at 12:09 a.m., Wilson messaged Dollarhide about suspected leaks of information coming from city employees.
“Lots of leaks happening right now and must get to bottom of it ASAP,” Wilson wrote.
On Feb. 21 at 12:14 a.m., Wilson further detailed her claim.
“Insider info getting out. Narrowed it down to Jennifer Fidler or Sherry Sullivan or both. I need to get to the bottom of this ASAP. It’s really bad,” Wilson wrote.
On Feb. 24, shortly after Wilson fired Fidler and Sullivan, she messaged Dollarhide again, indicating she was possibly prepared to fire four more employees.
Wilson: Let 2 employees go today. Jeff has their computers I want to get and want email captured ASAP. Big rumor about a group working against me. Have 4 to go.
Dollarhide: Ok. I can get them from Jeff and we get to work on the imaging and then do forensic searching when ready. Email is easy since you are on 365. He can download everything directly from the server. If they had cell phones I can image and examine those too.
Wilson: You may have to do. I want records for ethics.
On Feb. 26, consent to search forms for the computer and cell phone previously used by Fidler and the computer previously used by Sullivan were signed by Fairhope IT Director Jeff Montgomery and the equipment was turned over to Dollarhide for Elias to search.
Later that day, Wilson sent Dollarhide what she wanted searched.
Wilson: I need any email from Sherry or Jennifer Kant or Burrell. Jeff can help with this too.
Wilson: I want you to get copies too of all email. Jeff did find what he needed to support my decision to terminate
Wilson: Was not proof wanted from Jeff. Badmouthing yes but not about overturning. Wish could get this before tomorrow meeting especially any communications with Jack Burrell.
On Feb. 27, Dollarhide responded.
“Just finished the city cell phone assigned to fidler. Nothing in it of any value. I would expect any communications would have been on her personal cell,” Dollarhide wrote.
Wilson said Montgomery gave her the emails and “it seems pretty small.”
On March 7, following her brief hospitalization, Wilson said she was back to work and wanted more searches done, specifically on Burrell and former Mayor Kant.
Wilson: Want to look at computers and anything on server now that has Jack’s email to anyone. Jeff found some contacts in a former employees drawer for Kan. Not sure of can do anything with this.
Wilson: Jack email talk about it
Wilson (on March 9): When can we get together? I have to get a handle on Jack trying to take me down. Another unbelievable night during council.
Wilson then sent Dollarhide Fidler’s personal email address to see if it would come up in a search.
On March 14, Wilson again pressed for a search into Burrell.
Wilson: Do you have Jack’s personal email? Looks like the other is being investigated now. Will find out more and let you know!
On March 20, Dollarhide responded to Wilson that the searches performed had not produced any useable information.
Dollarhide: Good morning Mayor. I have searched that computer for the time frame we discussed and for the keywords but haven’t found anything that I think would be useful to you. I have a report you can view and search if you want to see it. You might be able to identify something useful that would escape me. Let me know if you would like me to get a copy to you.
In a statement to The Courier in July, Elias Technologies confirmed no mishandled information was found on Sullivan or Fidler’s equipment.
“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 President Gus Dimitrelos wrote in a statement. “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.”
On April 13, Wilson accuses City Treasurer Deborah Smith of being one of the people “working against” her.
Wilson: To catch you up, Deborah (treasuere (sic)) is one of the people working against me. Totally insubordinate.
On June 2, Wilson again accused Smith of being against her.
Wilson: Heard another article coming out today against me may have to do with IT. Deborah is sabotaging me and I need to know the details of this invoice.
In an email from her personal email account on June 29, Wilson accuses Smith of leaking information to Gulf Coast Media.
“Deborah, city clerk (sic), is the only person that would have given this to GCN,” Wilson wrote.
Wilson questioned Smith about whom she had given copies of the invoices to in a further email, with Smith responding she had only given a copy to Fairhope Police Chief Joe Petties.
The Courier can confirm, and has multiple times, that Smith has not ever given information or documents for any of our stories.
Wilson also requested Elias sweep several rooms at city hall for possible electronic surveillance equipment being used to gather information against her, including her office and reception area, the city’s conference room, the city council meeting room and main hallway and the Delchamps meeting room.
In a Jan. 4 email, Dollarhide lines out a number of requests Wilson had asked the company to do, including the sweep.
“Assess the security of the Mayor’s Suite of Offices to determine if there is potential for electronic surveillance and mitigate,” Dollarhide wrote.
‘The detail invoice that was sent I think will get me in trouble’
The items actually included in Elias Technologies scope of work for the city include three items for which the company received a $35,000 retainer: assessing the security of the city’s email service, assessing telecommunications resources and internal communication workflow to reduce burden place on Police Communications call management and storage and the creation of an evidence network for the handling of Police Department information.
Wilson signed the agreement on Feb. 24 and Elias Technologies President Gus Dimitrelos signed on Feb. 25.
Not included in the scope of work were the investigations into Sullivan, Fidler and others, including a requested search by Wilson into the IP address for a private citizen.
On Feb. 28, Wilson sends an instant message saying to begin work on police department work soon.
Wilson: I’ll need to start police dept stuff ASAP since this is scope of work
On April 10, Elias Technologies sent a detailed invoice to the city which included the searches done on Fidler and Sullivan’s equipment and showed a balance due of $9,832.50 for the work.
On April 12, Wilson sent the following message to Dollarhide.
Wilson: The detail invoice that was sent I think will get me in trouble. There were things done not in the scope of work :(
Dollarhide responded the company could send another invoice and would comp the work done on the searches.
Dollarhide: I understand. Louie will be sending a revised invoice tomorrow that will indicate that we are comping the work that was performed outside the scope of work. So those hours outside the contract will be zero dollars against the retainer.
Dollarhide: In the future we will just sign addendum to cover anything outside the statement of work if it comes up.
As late as June 7 in her messages, Wilson is still asking the company about getting the police department items started.
Wilson: Need to get police started
On June 12, Dollarhide responded:
Dollarhide: You texted that you wanted to get police started. Just wanted to nail that down. We can do it later in the week if you are busy.
Wilson: Yes want to get started! We are still trying to figure out who could have determined sentry
Wilson (on June 14): Still can’t figure out internal leaks. Available tomorrow afternoon to tall (sic) need to get police started
On June 19, Dollarhide said the company would be sending the addendum to cover the forensic work requested by Wilson.
Dollarhide: Louie is supposed to be sending me the addendum soon that will cover us doing forensic work at the direction of the chief of police. I will bring it by your office as soon as I get it.
The addendum was delivered to Petties on June 23 but was never signed by him and returned to the company.
On July 7, Wilson writes that “the police dept has lost trust."
Potential security breaches and mayoral concerns about The Courier
Wilson continually questions Dollarhide in the messages whether information reported on by The Courier is a potential security leak, with Dollarhide replying each time that he did not feel it was a security breach.
On July 1, Wilson questions if security was risked by the release of the invoices sent by Elias.
Wilson: Do you feel IT security risked by the leak of this invoice? (Link to Courier story)
Dollarhide: I don’t think IT security is jeopardized by that release.
In an email around the same time period, Wilson wrote Dollarhide she continued to worry the information in the invoices was a security concern.
“Cliff with Gulf Coast Media has been fed documents from an internal leak since I’ve taken office,” Wilson wrote. “When I talked to Cliff about Thurs., he said he received copies of both invoices and wantes (sic) a comment. The fact he was given both and there is a lot of detail besides the employee computer imaging, I’m trying to determine if any of the invoices had information that would be deemed a risk to security since the decision to hire your company came out of an executive session to separate police dept IT from the City IT.”
Dollarhide replied he still felt there was no sensitive information concerns.
“Regarding the question as to whether or not the information was sensitive - my opinion is that I don’t consider the drive serial numbers and the telephone IMEI as particularly sensitive data. They were included in the invoice to uniquely describe the items we were in possession of. There was a description of use of some common forensic tools, but those are industry standard tools and their use is not sensitive information. The employee/user names were included also to make references to the items less confusing, but we removed them from the second invoice at your request because you felt that information was sensitive.”
Back in March, Wilson had questioned Dollarhide about recommending tracking software to be placed on employee computers.
Wilson: Hey Dan, I need your recommendation for software for oversight on computers and the language to put in our policy book as soon as possible.
Dollarhide: I will get with Jeff to see what kind of policy you have in place so we know where we are starting from them get to work writing one that meets your requirements. I will get some software options together for you too. I will be back in town in a few days so pick a day that works for you and we can talk a out the lab proposal if you would like.
Wilson: Language already exists in policy boom! Jeff found one sending to you. It’s actually the same I used in my business when my bookkeeper was embezzling money from me.
On March 31, Wilson directed the installation of SentryPC spyware on the computers of Smith, Water and Sewer Superintendent Dan McCrory, former Electrical Superintendent Jimmy Cluster and Gas Superintendent Robert Rohm. The spyware was placed on Human Resources Director Pandora Heathcoe’s computer April 5, Purchasing Department Buyer Randy Weaver’s computer April 12 and City Clerk Lisa Hanks’ computer on April 25.
Following the article published by The Courier about the installation of that software on those employees’ computers, Wilson and Dollarhide discuss the story on June 2.
Dollarhide: Email sent. That article makes me curious of the source. It is either someone in IT who had knowledge of the software being installed, or like you said, the treasurer saw the charge and was able to access the user console of the software account and view the details. That info is pretty specific and it isn’t likely that 7 employees happen to identify a hidden process on a computer.
Wilson: These are the people that are working against me and the internal sources for Gulf Coast newspaper.
The Courier can confirm that none of those seven employees have given information or documents to any member of our staff for the stories that have been published.
Wilson accuses The Courier of “trying to make her look bad” with the stories being published.
“Gulf Coast Newspapers is not requesting all invoices from Forensic 360 in an effort to make me look like I’m doing something wrong again,” Wilson wrote in an email from her personal email address.
Wilson also had further words about this reporter in a July 6 instant message.
“Cliff is not going to stop,” Wilson wrote. “He’s on a witch hunt.”
On Lori DuBose’s Community Contact interview on Aug. 28, Burrell and Councilman Kevin Boone addressed the documents and Wilson’s statements within them, with Burrell repeatedly saying he was “disheartened” by the mayor’s actions.
“It’s quite extensive,” Burrell said. “I think the question that still needs to be asked is were public funds used to investigate employees that weren’t under police investigation.”
Burrell called the mayor’s searches “highly unusual.”
“It’s very disheartening when we’re trying to build trust with the mayor, and she’s asking this company for any email from Jack Burrell,” Burrell said. “The mayor asked Elias if they could recover emails from my personal email address - that’s highly unusual. I find it very troubling when the mayor feels the need to look into the personal emails of a council member. I take grave exception to that.”
Boone questioned whether the comped part of the bill from Elias could be considered a gift and therefore a potential ethics violation.
“The total bill was for more than $9,000, but they deleted more than $6,000 worth of work for effort outside of the scope performed,” Boone said. “She either needs to pay the bill or it could be considered a gift from Elias.”
Boone also questioned Wilson’s alleged commitment to transparency in her administration.
“I hear leaks being talked about all the time coming from her,” Boone said. “As far as I’m concerned, there are no leaks because I’ve never heard of leaks in a transparent world. There must not be transparency there because I hear at least a 100 times from her that leaks are coming out of that office.”
Burrell said he and other council members are still unaware of what the mayor has said was being leaked and he was not aware of any confidential information that had gotten out.
“There about four months of mentioning about leaks, but Elias searched various computers and it seems they found nothing each time,” Burrell said. “Over four months of looking for leaks that turned up absolutely nothing. It’s disheartening for me to read that.”
Boone said the actions taken by Wilson had given him a lot to think about.
“After all this has come out, I have lost trust in the mayor,” Boone said. “She told us she had little contact with the company, but we’ve got 18 pages and four months of contact with the company.”
Burrell said the council would continue to ask questions and pursue its options.
“I think we need to digest and see if anything has illegally been done,” Burrell said. “There is no basis for this investigation other than going out and trying to do it for political reasons. You’ve even got the mayor searching a private citizen’s IP address with no explanation.”
The Courier reached out to Wilson’s office for a response to several questions regarding the Elias documents and claims made in them. Her office responded Monday morning with the following:
“As you know this is Council Monday, and the mayor is in meetings all day in preparation,” Lynn Maser with the mayor’s office wrote. “I will not be able to get anything to you today.”
This story will be updated online at gulfcoastnewstoday.com if and when a further response is received from Wilson or her office.
In the Aug. 30 edition of The Courier, the article ‘The detail invoice that was sent I think will get me in trouble’ contained a sentence on Page 2 that said “On July 7, Wilson writes that ’the police dept has lost trust’ in her.”
Mayor Karin Wilson’s attorney Harry Satterwhite wrote in an August 31 letter to The Courier that, in the article’s quoted transcript of instant messages referenced, Wilson was not speaking about the police department losing trust in her but instead that the police department had lost trust in the services of its IT contractor.
Upon a careful second reading of the transcripts referenced in the Aug 30 article, it is not clear to whom Wilson is referring when she states “the police dept has lost trust.” Therefore the Courier retracts the words “in her” and apologizes for any confusion the words may have caused.
The Courier remains dedicated to bringing its readers the most accurate information possible in its stories and will always clarify or retract any rare oversight that may occur in its reporting.