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City Alleges: County Hacked Us: Barnes County Officials Accused of Illegally Accessing Recorded Call

February 8, 2013

Scott Schlaufman/Times-Record Valley City officials are looking into the possible illegal access of a phone call between a 9-1-1 dispatcher and a caller to the Valley City Police Department.

Valley City police, the city attorney and the city administrator are investigating the alleged illegal access, by a Barnes County employee, of a phone call made to the Valley City Police Department.

The phone call, which resulted in disciplinary action for a Valley City 9-1-1 dispatcher, was made to the police department phone line by a woman reporting an injured deer. The call was not made to 9-1-1.

According to e-mails between city and county officials obtained by the Times-Record, a digital recording of the 9-1-1 call was obtained and used to bring disciplinary action against a dispatcher. The digital file brought the incident to the attention of Police Chief Fred Thompson, who oversees daily operations of the call center. The 9-1-1 dispatch center is operated, under contract with Barnes County, by Valley City and all dispatchers are city employees.

On Jan. 16 the dispatcher received a call about a wounded deer on the side of the road between 12th St. NE and the Hi-Line Bridge. Later, the caller complained on her Facebook page that the dispatcher had made unprofessional comments about the Barnes County Sheriff’s Department.

According to emails obtained by the Times-Record, Barnes County Deputy Don Fiebiger learned of the complaint, and on Wednesday, Jan. 23, e-mailed a digital file of the call to Barnes County Sheriff Randy McClaflin, at McClaflin’s request, and to Thompson, who was on sick leave. The digital file was ultimately e-mailed to Valley City Police Lieutenant Mark McDonald, who later made Thompson aware of the complaint and the digital file.

Thompson investigated the complaint and disciplined the dispatcher with a written reprimand.

The issue was brought to public light during a meeting of the Barnes County Commissioners on Tuesday, when commissioner John Froelich brought up the recording and why only three of the five commissioners had gained access to the recording. Froelich also voiced displeasure with how the recording was acquired.

Although some county commissioners expressed their displeasure with the dispatcher and wanted a public apology, city officials believe the bigger picture is how the county obtained the digital file.

“I advised [state’s attorney Lee Grossman] that this was an internal matter,” wrote Valley City Attorney Russ Myhre in an e-mail acquired by the Times-Record to Valley City Commissioners Mary Lee Nielson and Duane Magnuson and to Valley City Administrator Dave Schelkoph. “I also advised him that we considered that the retrieval of the 9-1-1 tape was essentially a hacking into our computer systems and a serious breach of our security systems.”

Currently, Valley City officials are investigating how the recording was acquired and are trying to organize a meeting with Barnes County officials to discuss the issue. An e-mail from City Attorney Russ Myhre to Grossman suggested a meeting that would include two county commissioners, two city commissioners, Grossman, Myhre, McClaflin, Thompson, and Barnes County IT Specialist Jason Thiel.

“As we discussed, the situation for the county basically revolves around a personnel issue,” wrote Myhre to Grossman in an email acquired by the Times-Record. “The situation for the city involves the unauthorized retrieval of a digital file by outside sources. Both situations are related because the digital file, which was retrieved without proper authorization, contained the dispatcher’s comment.”

The breech could indicate a violation of several sections of the North Dakota Century Code, according to the email. Some of the sections pertain to illegal search and seizure according to the North Dakota Century Code.

“How can we hack into a computer we have access to and have passwords to?” asked McClaflin, speaking to the Times-Record. McClaflin denies any wrongdoing in the way his office acquired the recording. “The Police Department gave it to us.”

“If anybody requests any information or status of the 9-1-1 department, all they have to do is ask,” said Schelkoph to the Times-Record. He is unsure how the recording was accessed. “In all of the negotiations for a takeover of the 9-1-1 dispatch center by the county, we have been extremely clear that if there’s anything we are doing here that doesn’t meet Barnes County’s standards or expectations, we can adjust.”

Schelkoph hopes the issue can be resolved between the two entities but the city hasn’t had a response to its request for a meeting.

County commissioners declined comment regarding the recording and referred all questions to Grossman.

Grossman had no comment, and said in an email, “I can’t discuss any matters that may lead to or are part of an investigation until the issue is resolved.”

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