CLINTON—After the sheriff intervened, the Anderson County mayor and human resources director remained at a standoff Wednesday afternoon over how to copy the hard drives of two computers in the county’s Human Resources Department.
The hard drives could contain personnel records related to building inspector Lisa Crumpley, who was terminated on October 9 and has threatened to sue the county. Her personnel file has been reported missing.
Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank said she wants to preserve records related to Crumpley’s wrongful termination claim, as instructed by Knoxville law firm Kramer Rayson LLP, which represents Crumpley.
On Tuesday, the day after Human Resources Director Cathy Best announced her resignation, Frank proposed sending the hard drives used by Best and Human Resources Generalist Kerri Ashley, who has also resigned, to a Knoxville company to have copies made.
But Best objected, Frank said, and the mayor had a technician from Computer Systems Plus come to the Anderson County Courthouse in Clinton on Wednesday morning to make copies on-site. The county consultant had started disassembling the computers when Sheriff Paul White showed up, and the technician quit working because he believed he could be arrested if he continued, the mayor said.
Best said she does not object to copying the hard drives, but she wants to ensure that the proper procedure is followed. She said her department’s hard drives could contain health information that is not public, conversations with attorneys during the past 10 years, and information that might relate to an investigation by the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department of Crumpley’s missing personnel file.
“I have a right and a duty to maintain the security of these files,” Best said.
Because the files could be involved in Crumpley’s legal action, the county should have an attorney involved in any copying of the hard drives, Best said.
“My job is to keep the county out of court,” she said.
Best said forensic copies of the hard drives should be made by an independent party with the involvement of an attorney representing the county and with input from the 12-member Human Resources Advisory Committee, which hires and fires the HR director.
“By no means am I trying to hide anything,” said Best, who has worked for the county for almost a decade. “I’m trying to protect what I’ve been hired to protect.”
Frank said she wants to copy the hard drives of Best and Ashley since they’re both leaving, and she’s simply trying to preserve the information that Kramer Rayson requested.
Frank said the sheriff had up to four deputies stationed in or near the HR office, and she felt intimidated.
“This is about the preservation of records,” Frank said. “Now that I get this kind of response, now I’m concerned.”
Best said she was “disheartened and discouraged” by the events of the previous day, which included a private security worker hired by the mayor stationed outside the main entrance of her office overnight.
The sad and unfortunate part, Best said, is that she and the mayor are “on the same page” regarding the desire to back up the computer hard drives as part of an effort to preserve and protect the documents.
“In this case, there’s just some poor communication,” Best said.
Frank said she asked the sheriff what authority allowed him to prevent the county’s computer consultant from copying the hard drives. She was told the hard drives are part of an ongoing investigation, Frank said.
“Why would the creation of a copy be a problem?” Frank asked during an interview in her office Wednesday afternoon. “At the end of the day, I’m still charged with preserving this information, and I don’t know why I’m getting this kind of response.”
She said White has also not responded to a request to view courthouse video surveillance tapes that might show who had entered and exited the HR office after Crumpley’s termination on October 9.
“I have all kinds of concerns,” Frank said.
White declined to comment Wednesday afternoon.
Concerned by what she called “stonewalling” and an “over-amped” response, Frank said she observed the HR office overnight on Tuesday. She stayed at the Anderson County Courthouse until 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and hired security to come in and sit with a video recorder and watch the department overnight. They stayed until 6:15 a.m. Wednesday, Frank said.
“My job is to make sure all the facts are preserved and to sort through it all,” Frank said. “There’s too much that doesn’t add up.”
The standoff might have been resolved by Thursday. In a message to Anderson County Trustee Rodney Archer, chair of the Human Resources Advisory Committee, Frank said her attempt to make forensic copies of the hard drives used by Ashley and Best would have preserved all data, including deleted files, and the action would have “prevented the intentional or inadvertent destruction of evidence through continued use of the computers.
“As the preservation images of the hard drives could have been made overnight, this appeared to be the most cost-effective and efficient way of securing evidence while allowing the ladies quickly to return to work,” Frank said.
But the sheriff “intervened to stop the preservation of this evidence, threatened the county’s own information technology consultant with arrest, and has assumed full responsibility for securing the information,” Frank said.
“It appears that he is making the drives secure by preventing anyone from using the computers and stationing multiple deputies in the HR Office to prevent anyone from using the computers,” Frank said. “Although a forensic image of the hard drives would have allowed the ladies to return to work, the sheriff’s method appears adequate to preserve the evidence. I believe the ultimate goal has been achieved, that is, the fulfillment of (Kramer Rayson attorney Robert L.) Bowman’s request and the county’s obligation to secure the data on the hard drives.”
Since White has assumed full responsibility for securing the evidence, “I see no further role for my office with respect to my issue and relinquish to the sheriff full responsibility for the preservation of this electronic evidence,” Frank said.
Resignations, missing files
In her message to Archer, Frank said Best and Ashley both resigned after Crumpley’s file went missing. Best and Ashley are the only two full-time employees in the office. Best’s resignation is effective November 21—although she has volunteered to help the county through the transition—and Ashley’s last day is November 14.
Best, who is taking a job in the private sector, sought to “dispel any rumors” about her resignation after 9.5 years. She emphasized that her resignation is not related to the missing file, pointing out that she has been talking to her new employer for more than a month.
“In no way does my resignation from the county have to do with the recent events of the personnel file missing from this office,” Best said. “While at Anderson County, I have made all reasonable efforts to uphold the integrity, confidentiality, and overall caution with the personal, sensitive, and protected information entrusted in this department.”
Best said her office doesn’t alter or remove files or records.
“We actually go above and beyond,” she said. “I have operated with the utmost integrity in this office.”
Best acknowledged that there had been a security breach, and she outlined steps that the Human Resources Department has taken since her office was unable to find the file, including notifying the appropriate parties and filing a report with the Sheriff’s Department. Best said she and her staff have cooperated with the sheriff’s investigation and will continue to do so.
She declined to say what was in Crumpley’s personnel file that might be of interest to anyone, citing the ongoing investigation and Crumpley’s pending legal action. There is no backup copy of Crumpley’s personnel file.
The missing file was discovered when Frank requested a copy after Crumpley’s termination by Public Works Director David Crowley on October 9, a few hours before he was arrested by agents from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation on five charges of violating state laws dealing with having the proper licenses to perform building inspections.
Frank, who appointed Crowley in September 2012, has questioned his indictment.
Frank said Crumpley, who reportedly cooperated with the TBI probe, has claimed “whistle blower” status and notified the county on October 20 that she intends to sue for wrongful termination. The county has been instructed to preserve paper, electronic files, and other electronic data, including voicemails, related to Crumpley’s claim. A failure to comply could result in severe sanctions, said Bowman, the Kramer Rayson attorney.
In October, Frank issued a statement in which she said that she would not tolerate anyone being terminated for lawfully cooperating in an investigation, and she pledged to look into the matter further.
On Wednesday, Frank said she has produced emails and other information from her computer in response to the Kramer Rayson letter, and she took immediate steps to secure the information in the courthouse that is under her control and related to Crumpley, including email records. Those records are stored by Computer Systems Plus.
Crumpley’s computer remains locked down and stored under “lock and key,” Frank said. With Best’s agreement, the HR computers were secured with a new password on Wednesday.
Frank said she has notified the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office that Crumpley’s HR file is missing, stolen, or damaged. The mayor has also reported that 25 files, including code books and permit files, are missing from the Public Works Department. One or two of those files are related to Crowley’s indictment, Frank said. She said she had made protective copies and still has them, but the originals are missing.
Frank said she has asked District Attorney General Dave Clark to have the TBI look into the missing files.
“It’s a serious issue,” Frank said. “Maybe I’m overly concerned, but that’s just who I am. I try to be diligent. I think people sent me here to be that way.”
The next step wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday. The Anderson County Human Resources Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet next on November 12. Archer was unavailable for comment Wednesday. Frank is also a member of the committee and is responsible for day-to-day oversight of the HR Department.
Best said she fully supports exhausting any and all means to locate the missing personnel file and determine how the security breach happened.
“I followed up in a conversation with the mayor in her office last week, asking if the Comptroller’s Office would be in touch with me and how they would handle the situation,” Best said. “In that meeting, I expressed to her my feelings that I would welcome any sort of audit of files, and further, if the Comptroller’s Office would not do so, hiring an independent company to come in and perform one.”