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Computer caper demands answers

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It sounds like a script for a B-rated movie - a deputy, who is running for sheriff, slips into the county commissioners' office without a warrant and 'seizes' a computer that is the subject of a politically motivated public records request and sequesters it away in the evidence room until the election is over.

Sadly, this isn't the plot of some Hollywood flick; it's a true-life soap opera unfolding at the Columbia County Courthouse and jail in St. Helens, Oregon … or so it would seem.

As ridiculous as it all sounds, the suspense revolving around the whodunit involving Commissioner Joe Corsiglia's computer is already taking on a life of its own amid ever-wilder conspiracy theories, character assassinations and name-calling. Local political pundits are having a field day with this one, and embarrassing Columbia County in the process.

Did someone really break into Corsiglia's computer last fall when he was attending a mock disaster in Portland? That remains the central question of an investigation that he unleashed when he made a complaint to Undersheriff Gerry Simmons. If Corsiglia's concerns are legitimate, law enforcement needs to get to the bottom of the matter as soon as possible to end the rancor swirling around this peculiar episode. If not, Corsiglia has opened a Pandora's Box that he may find difficult to shut.

As concerning as the alleged breach itself is the apparent failure of Corsiglia and Simmons to follow protocol, procedure or common sense.

For example, why wasn't the county's Information Technology (IT) Department involved in delving into the security breach? The IT staff didn't even know Corsiglia's computer had been removed. By not involving the people who are directly responsible for computer security, it looks as if Corsiglia and Simmons didn't trust the IT staff or believe they had the expertise to decipher information in computer registries, cache files and cookies.

Equally disturbing is Corsiglia's decision not to immediately involve his colleagues, Commissioners Tony Hyde and Rita Bernhard, after he suspected a breach. The plot thickens in light of the timing of the seizure, not long after Michael Sheehan, a local attorney and political opponent of Corsiglia, filed a public record request demanding access to Corsiglia's e-mail.

Criminal complaints are serious matters. That five months elapsed from the time Corsiglia filed the complaint to the time the Sheriff's Office seized his computer seems to be a serious breach of investigatory protocol, violating the most elementary taboo in law enforcement - allowing the trail to grow cold. Did Simmons log the complaint as soon as it was made? If so, he has thus far been unwilling to share that information. He has also failed to adequately explain why he enlisted the assistance of the FBI, which we now know isn't interested in the case, which does not bode well for its legitimacy.

What is the cost of the investigation in both time and dollars? What steps have been taken to prevent similar breaches in the future? These are questions someone - whether it's Corsiglia, Hyde, Bernhard, Simmons, or the county's IT staff - needs to answer to move toward closure in this episode. Have the locks on the commissioners' offices been changed to prevent unauthorized persons from using county computers in the future? Have robust firewalls been constructed to foil computer hackers once and for all? Have surveillance cameras been installed to record suspicious or unlawful activity at the courthouse? These are the types of questions that need to be addressed by the commissioners and their advisers if they have not already done so.

Unfortunately, at this juncture there seem to be more questions than answers because all the parties are shrouded by something called 'an ongoing investigation.' When that shroud is lifted, someone has a lot of explaining to do. R.S.