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Discovery of personal files on Lancaster County government computer shines light on importance of local journalism, accountability, public trust and cybersecurity [editorial] | Our Opinion

THE ISSUE: “Dozens of personal files belonging to Lancaster County’s top lawyer — including documents related to local Republican Party committees — were discovered on a county government computer network earlier this year, raising questions about whether she performed campaign or other outside work using taxpayer time or resources,” LNP | Lancaster Online’s Tom Lisi reported last Sunday (investigative journalist Carter Walker contributed reporting). “The files belong to Jacquelyn E. Pfursich, the former clerk of courts who last year was appointed county solicitor. Pfursich said she accidentally transferred the files onto the county’s computer network when she used a personal thumb drive in July 2021 to transfer some work-related files as she transitioned into her new role as solicitor.”

Mistakes in private life are one thing. Mistakes that may involve taxpayer-funded resources are quite another.

LNP | Lancaster Online obtained copies of the 85 or so files in question from a source. The files “include 55 documents related to Pfursich’s political work with the county and Hempfield Republican committees, at least 13 files related to outside legal work Pfursich conducted during years she was serving as clerk of courts, and 11 files that were personal in nature,” Lisi explained.

While serving as clerk of courts, Pfursich represented private legal clients on the side. And she has chaired the Hempfield Area Republican Committee since 2016.

Because clerk of courts is an elected position, Pfursich was permitted to hold outside jobs. But, as Lisi wrote, “Pennsylvania’s Public Officials and Employees Ethics Act bars elected officials from using their office for ‘personal financial gain.’ And the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission … has found conducting campaign work and personal work with county resources, such as a computer or telephone, to qualify as a type of financial gain.”

It has to be a significant gain to incur a penalty.

We’re not going to know the extent of the issue here because, unfortunately, no external investigation was sought or conducted.

It was essentially left to LNP | Lancaster Online to examine this matter.

Role of newspapers

Politicians may prefer it when community newspapers disappear or decline to put resources into watchdog reporting, but citizens lose.

As stated in Northwestern University’s Medill School’s 2022 report on the state of local news, newspapers continue “to vanish at a rapid rate. An average of more than two a week are disappearing.” And in “communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout.”

Newspapers also record and preserve local history.

Genetic genealogist CeCe Moore played a pivotal role in identifying suspects in the long-cold cases of Lancaster County homicide victims Christy Mirack and Lindy Sue Biechler. Moore said she scours newspaper archives to find information about the cases she works on.

The DNA of Mirack’s killer indicated Puerto Rican heritage; Moore discovered from one newspaper article that Mirack’s alleged killer, Raymond “DJ Freez” Rowe, is Puerto Rican on his father’s side. And Moore found a lead in the Biechler case in a Lancaster New Era listing of the marriage license and address of Biechler’s alleged killer, David V. Sinopoli.

LNP | LancasterOnline reporting over the years helped to keep the cold cases of Mirack, Biechler and others on the public radar.

This newspaper also takes seriously its role as a watchdog of local government. And this editorial board takes its responsibility seriously to ask questions of local elected officials.

‘in hindsight’

So we’ll begin with this one: Why isn’t Pfursich herself pressing for an external investigation?

As solicitor, she is this county’s chief legal officer and should be above reproach.

As Lisi wrote, the political and personal files belonging to Pfursich were first discussed in public at a June board of commissioners meeting when Ron Harper Jr., a local political activist, claimed he had evidence that Pfursich had misused her office as clerk of courts.

The presence of the documents on the clerk of courts network was reported to Lancaster County human resources director Michelle Gallo and Democratic county Commissioner John Trescot in a March 31 memo written by Mary Anater, Pfursich’s successor as clerk of courts. Trescot was the designated point of contact between Anater’s office and the county board of commissioners.

Anater said she “reviewed the files, determined they were against county policy” and reported them.

Pfursich said she was unaware that the files — some which contained confidential information of legal clients — were accessible in a shared county computer network.

“In hindsight, I should have used a fresh, new thumb drive to avoid any accidental transfer of files,” Pfursich said. “However, I have never used county computers or county resources for political purposes.”

We’ll have to take her word for it. Because, as county chief clerk Lawrence George told LNP | Lancaster Online, he had the files forwarded to him for storage. As Lisi reported, George “took no additional steps to look further into the matter or refer it to someone else — whether an outside attorney or other investigative body.”

George said he didn’t consider whether the existence of the files merited further inquiry.

“The first objective was to remove all the information that was believed accessible to someone it should not have been accessible to, and my initial thought wasn’t really, ‘Oh, is that going to taint any kind of investigation that may need to follow ?’ George said.

Why wasn’t that his initial thought? We are left wondering if it’s because the culture in the Lancaster County Government Center isn’t inclined toward accountability and transparency.

After all, Lancaster County government is led by Republican Commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino, who frequently rail against LNP | LancasterOnline.

Matter of public trust

As Patrick Christmas, policy director at the Philadelphia-based good government group Committee of Seventy, told Lisi, the public deserves assurance that its public officials are operating above board, especially now, when trust in government is low.

“Even relatively minor infractions or potential violations can dent that trust,” Christmas said.

Pfursich should recognize this.

As Lisi noted, “Pfursich’s account of how the files wound up in the county network and the subsequent response by George and others raises questions about the county’s cybersecurity policies and protocols, as well as how it handles potential ethics matters.”

It certainly does.

George Told LNP | LancasterOnline that his response from him followed county procedures. However, file data that could have been part of a deeper inquiry was lost.

The county’s information technology security policy was obtained by LNP | Lancaster Online through an open-records request. The policy doesn’t expressly prohibit the use of outside thumb drives, but it does say that users “should store work documents and data on cloud-based storage, rather than on device hard drives or USB storage devices,” Lisi reported.

The journalist hoped to find out if deleting personal files from a shared drive eliminated the ability to do a deeper forensic analysis of this matter, but Steven Clement, the county’s IT director — who found it likely that Pfursich’s transfer of personal files to the county’s network was accidental—did not respond to Lisi’s queries.

Daniel Castro of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, DC, think tank that focuses on cybersecurity and privacy issues, told Lisi that an inability to review the history of computer activity by county officials would indicate major system deficiencies. He also said allowing users to copy or transfer county documents to a device outside the IT system was questionable.

“These are officials for whom chain of custody really matters — for documents, who has access to things, you want strong audit logs. This all just kind of suggests poor IT in general and IT security,” Castro said.

Christmas suggested that county officials might want to review the onboarding process for county employees to “avoid this sort of thing happening in the future.”

That’s the very least they should do.

Playing politics

We have to wonder what the fallout might have been had this involved an official who had some leadership role in Democratic Party politics.

As Lisi reported, Parsons and D’Agostino have political ties to Pfursich and voted for her appointment to solicitor in July 2021 over objections from the Democratic commissioner at the time, Craig Lehman.

Republican Party politics clearly shape this county’s government.

Last week, for instance, Parsons voted against providing financial support for a YWCA Lancaster program aimed at reducing child separations in some family court cases.

why? Because he objected to comments made by a YWCA employee in April opposing the Republican commissioners’ decision to remove the county’s sole mail-in ballot drop box.

That’s “way, way out of the lane of the YWCA,” Parsons asserted.

YWCA Lancaster’s stated mission is to “eliminate racism and empower women.” And one very legitimate way to empower women is to encourage that voting be as accessible as possible.

Moreover, we found Parsons’ criticism about YWCA Lancaster’s “political advocacy” to be ironic, given that he regularly uses his official social media accounts to retweet the comments of congressional Republicans — which seems to us to be “way, way” out of a Lancaster County commissioner’s lane.

We respectfully suggest that he focus instead on beefing up the county’s cybersecurity and IT policies and procedures. In light of the Pfursich matter, this seems imperative.

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