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Lawsuit: Officials viewed porn

Commercial fishermen say documents show fisheries officials inappropriately used state office computers.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- As one of Florida's top environmental regulators, 52-year-old Russell Nelson spends his days watching over the state's saltwater fish populations.

But computer records show that Nelson, who heads the state's Division of Marine Fisheries, has had a distraction: He surfed pornographic Internet sites from his state computer.

He visited such sites as "sexswap," "porntrack," "sexhound," and "virtuagirl" -- which advertises "lovely girls living and stripping on your desktop while you work," according to documents that are part of a lawsuit commercial fishermen filed against the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The documents allege that Nelson and other state workers at the Conservation Commission had accounts at "members-only" triple X porn sites, visited online stock trading sites, shopped on ebay, and sent racy e-mails from office to office.

An attorney for commercial fishermen, J. Patrick Floyd of Port St. Joe, also says he has evidence that state wildlife officials illegally destroyed electronic records after the fishermen filed a public records request.

"There's evidence of files that were deleted," Floyd said.

The wildlife commission denies that charge.

But the commission does concede that some employees visited porn sites. Nelson has admitted visiting the porn sites on state time, said his boss, commission executive director Allan Egbert.

"I wish I could tell you that no employee of this agency has visited these porn sites. They have. They've done it on state computers and on state time. I'm not going to defend that. Russell (Nelson) has admitted to visiting some sites on line," Egbert said.

Records in the lawsuit include e-mails from the Marine Fisheries Commission's general counsel, Charlie Shelfer, who went by the e-mail name of "Law Squid." Computer records in the lawsuit indicate that another worker, fisheries analyst Bill Teehan, downloaded pictures of Baywatch star Pamela Anderson Lee.

But Egbert said the case is part of a "smear campaign" that some commercial fishermen are waging against state regulators.

"This is an attempt to discredit a few employees of the agency to get them dismissed from their positions," Egbert said.

A biologist with a Ph.D. who makes $88,988 a year, Nelson has headed marine fisheries regulation for the state since 1987.

Nelson referred questions to the commission attorney, Jim Antista. Antista said he can't comment because there are two ongoing investigations: one by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and one by the wildlife commission's inspector general.

In an affidavit filed by Floyd, a hired computer expert alleges that the agency deliberately -- and systematically -- deleted state records, including wiping out the entire hard drive used by commission head Egbert.

"We filed our public records request on March 2, and on March 3, the head of the commission had his computer erased -- now that's scary," said Bob Jones, who heads the Southeastern Fisheries Association, a commercial fishing group.

Egbert, a longtime Florida wildlife official, says if his computer was altered, he didn't know it.

"It's absolutely not true that I had my hard drive wiped or swiped or cleaned or anything," Egbert said. "The reason I have nothing on my hard drive is I've never had anything on my hard drive. The business of falsifying data or deleting data to achieve a certain political outcome -- that's the worst thing you can accuse a biologist of doing."

In the five years since Florida imposed a fishing-net ban, bitterness between commercial fishermen and state regulators has grown. Because his agency limits what commercial fishermen can catch, Nelson has often been a target of fishermen's tirades.

Floyd, the Port St. Joe attorney, said he hired Tallahassee computer expert Anton Hajducek in late February to help sort through state computer files.

Hajducek had done computer work for the commission and other government agencies. He also has a criminal record that includes convictions and probation for bad checks and a vehicle theft that arose in a dispute over a rental-car return.

After the net ban, some Panhandle fishermen switched to large nets fashioned from tarps to catch bait fish. The Legislature funded a three-year pilot project to see if the tarp nets were hurting fish populations. But last spring, the five-member Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission abruptly voted to end the pilot project altogether.

Floyd wanted to probe agency computers to find what prompted the decision. He requested "mirrored" -- or identical -- copies of hard drives and hired Hajducek sort through them.

"They actually installed software to automatically delete files," Hajducek said in an interview. "I was surprised at the level of it. The majority of the e-mail I saw on their servers were dirty jokes."

In his affidavit, Hajducek wrote that "in the case of Mr. Nelson's computer, there was evidence of wiping, deleting, and altering of settings and files."

On March 20, just a few weeks after he started the public records search, Hajducek found an e-mail by Allegra Small, a commission staff assistant, that began: "PLEASE READ ASAP. Please verify that all inappropriate e-mail has been deleted from your computer(s)."

Egbert said that e-mail had nothing to do with the public records request. He said it had to do with a curious episode that happened on Feb. 22.

That day, hundreds of employees at the wildlife commission and Department of Environmental Protection got an e-mail that was supposedly sent by Nelson to another Marine Fisheries Commission employee, Robert Palmer. The forwarded e-mail contained 126 pornographic images, Egbert said. He called in the FDLE to investigate, and computers were seized.

"We determined that it was not sent from (Nelson's) terminal," Egbert said. "That stuff was filth, and it needed to be gotten rid of."

Times researchers Cathy Wos and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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