Stanton told to return files
Largo says information was erased from his city laptop before he turned it in.
By LORRI HELFAND
Published April 20, 2007
LARGO -- Files were apparently removed from former City Manager Steve Stanton's city-issued laptop computer before he returned it last month, Largo officials say.
A computer forensic expert hired by Largo said it appears a "significant number of files" on the laptop's hard drive were "destroyed, removed or altered," according to an April 12 letter from an attorney for the city to Stanton's lawyer.
That has set Stanton at odds with the city, with Stanton's attorney saying he's done nothing wrong.
But Largo officials said they believe some of the documents removed may include public records. Florida law prohibits public officials from destroying records except in specified circumstances.
"The city is considering its rights with regard to potential civil legal remedies for the destruction or conversion of public documents and for spoliation of evidence," wrote attorney Kevin Johnson, whose firm represents Largo on labor matters.
Apparently at least two portable storage devices, or USB drives, were used to store documents from Stanton's laptop, Johnson wrote.
As a result, the city has demanded that Stanton produce any portable data storage devices that were used to store missing data so the city can retrieve public records.
Stanton has said little publicly about the records. Early this week, he acknowledged using a Memory Stick with the laptop. Without being specific, he said that people were "yelling" at him about it and his attorney said he should not discuss the issue with the Times. He said he wanted to avoid litigation and might "wind up going to court" over this issue. He did not return later calls from the Times.
Stanton's attorney said he is working with the city. She blamed the Times, which has requested records from the laptop, for exaggerating a nonissue.
"There's nothing missing; there's nothing removed," said Karen Doering, senior counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "The city was fully aware he was going to take his personal items off the computer before he returned it. You all are the only ones creating an issue here where there really isn't one."
The Largo City Commission fired Stanton, 48, on March 23, about a month after he disclosed that he planned to become a woman named Susan.
Since then, Stanton has said he hopes to educate others about transgender people. He appeared on Larry King Live last week and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart Tuesday night. He also has applied for a job as Sarasota's city manager.
As Largo's city manager, Stanton had a reputation for making public information accessible. He also was known for keeping close tabs on information coming into and out of City Hall.
Last year, for example, a city employee was asked to resign after Stanton discovered that the man had improperly contributed $100 to the former mayor's re-election campaign. Stanton learned about the contribution after a sealed envelope labeled "Personal" had been delivered to the employee at City Hall.
In contrast, the fate of Stanton's laptop has been a source of disagreement.
A day before he was fired, Stanton's attorney told the city that since it had refused his offer to buy his city laptop, the computer would be returned "with a new hard drive."
That's not acceptable, Johnson responded. Stanton was well aware that employees cannot expect any materials placed on a city computer to be private, he added.
"City computer equipment must be used for city business only," Johnson wrote. "Thus, any documents contained on Mr. Stanton's computer cannot be considered 'private' or 'confidential.'"
Harold Schomaker, the city's information technology manager, said employees are informed during orientation not to expect privacy with e-mails or Internet use. They're also told city devices are not meant for personal use, he said.
Johnson also requested that no one "inspect, modify, copy, alter, damage, or even turn on the computer" until it was returned.
The laptop was delivered to City Hall on March 23 and was stored in the Police Department's property room until it was inspected by E-Hounds, a Clearwater firm that specializes in computer forensics.
City Attorney Alan Zimmet said "Steve says nothing he deleted and saved to the USB drive has anything to do with city business."
The city wants to review the documents to make sure of that, Zimmet said.
Experts can clearly detect when files have been deleted, said Susanne Nicholson, an expert certified through the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners.
"Computer evidence is easy to work with," said Nicholson, whose business, Midwest Forensics, is in Hillsdale, Ill. "Either the evidence is there or it isn't. It is very exact."
Zimmet said he did not know how much information was missing, but Commissioner Andy Guyette, a technical director at Honeywell, said a lot of information can be stored on a flash drive.
"You can get them with one gigabyte," he said. "You could probably get a very large book in one gigabyte."
Stanton is writing a book about his life, and Guyette said he thinks Stanton may have done the work on his laptop.
Guyette said he doesn't care about that, but is concerned there may be information missing from the laptop about Stanton's communication with his circle of confidants at City Hall.
"That is a city computer," he said. "It is a public record. It should not have been tampered with."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.