October 17, 2007 5:45 AM PDT

Police Blotter: Official can't be fired in sex e-mail flap

Related Stories

Police Blotter: Is it legal to use an alias anymore?

October 12, 2007

Police Blotter: Fired worker blames porn on malware

October 3, 2007

Police Blotter: Justice Dept.'s warrantless eavesdropping rejected

September 26, 2007

Police Blotter: Porn spammers' guilty verdict upheld

September 7, 2007

Police Blotter: MySpace profile becomes part of rape conviction

August 16, 2007

Police Blotter: Fake gay HotorNot profile draws suit

July 13, 2007

Police Blotter: Dark side of 'reputation defending' service

June 29, 2007

Police Blotter: Necrobabes.com leads to murder conviction

June 21, 2007

Police Blotter: Teenage murderers convicted through IM logs

June 13, 2007

Police Blotter: Court overturns man's Net ban for life

June 6, 2007

Police Blotter: Cops need warrant to search cell phone?

May 30, 2007

Police Blotter: Bondage Webmaster fights abuse conviction

May 23, 2007

Police Blotter: Imprisoned sex offenders demand PCs

May 16, 2007

Police blotter: Fired federal worker sues over googling

May 9, 2007

Police blotter: Can someone else let cops search your PC?

May 2, 2007

Police blotter: Secret recording inadmissible against bus driver

April 25, 2007

Police blotter: Cops OK to copy cell phone content

April 19, 2007

Police blotter: Open Wi-Fi blamed in child porn case

April 18, 2007

Police blotter: Sensual masseuse sues ex-customer

April 11, 2007

Police blotter: No privacy in home PC brought to work

April 5, 2007

Police blotter: Ex-employee sued for deleting files

March 28, 2007

Police blotter: Unbrotherly love in Craigslist sex ad

March 21, 2007

Police blotter: Computer logs as alibi in wife's death

March 14, 2007

Police blotter: FBI's 'misleading' wiretap suppressed

March 7, 2007

Police blotter: Wife e-surveilled in divorce case

March 1, 2007

Police blotter: Convicted eBay robber loses appeal

February 21, 2007

Police blotter: Wireless voyeur appeals 56-year term

February 14, 2007

Police blotter: Texas student guilty in SSN hack

February 2, 2007

Police blotter: Heirs sue over will-making software

January 24, 2007

Police blotter: Antispam activist fights lawsuit

January 19, 2007

Police blotter: Detecting computer-generated porn?

January 3, 2007

Police blotter: Web at heart of ecoterror lawsuit

December 27, 2006

Police blotter: Google searches nab wireless hacker

December 20, 2006

Police blotter: Fired over 'Wicked Weasel' photo

December 8, 2006

Police blotter: Child porn in Web cache OK

November 24, 2006

Police blotter: Florida judges target Net sex

November 17, 2006

Police blotter: Prison inmate wants personal ad replies

November 10, 2006

Police blotter: Child porn blamed on computer virus

November 3, 2006
Police Blotter is a weekly News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation tries to fire a senior bureaucrat who admitted to circulating inappropriate e-mail messages containing nudity.

When: Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania rules on October 15.

Outcome: State is prohibited from firing bureaucrat, who was a senior highway maintenance manager in York County, Pennsylvania.

What happened, according to court documents and other sources:
Charles Webb was a senior highway maintenance manager with Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation, or PennDOT, making $84,000 a year. He supervised 156 employees and was the highest-ranking PennDOT official in the York County Maintenance Office. His duties included ensuring that his subordinates followed PennDOT's acceptable use policy for the Internet.

Instead of focusing solely on highway maintenance, however, Webb spent time forwarding sexually explicit, salacious and off-color e-mails.

Those included penis jokes, videos of stuffed animals simulating sex, a Microsoft Word document titled "The Benefits of Sex," and a series of photographs (sent to his male subordinates) of women with their breasts exposed or skirts lifted up.

Webb was caught when an anonymous voice-mail message to PennDOT's tip line in January 2006 reported that he was frequently absent from the office and was circulating "derogatory" e-mail messages. The PennDOT technology department subsequently recorded Webb's e-mail correspondence and compiled five CDs of e-mail over a five-week period.

This was consistent with Pennsylvania state policy, which said that authorized employees may monitor e-mail. The 2003 policy, which Webb signed, also prohibited "viewing, accessing or transmitting any material that a reasonable individual may find personally offensive, or inappropriate, including but not limited to sexually suggestive...materials."

At an internal hearing in March 2006, Webb defended sending the messages as a way to boost morale and relieve stress. He was fired a month later for violating the Internet use policy, unauthorized use of PennDOT equipment, and failure to carry out his duties as a manager in a proper and responsible manner. (Before the e-mail messages were discovered, Webb had been disciplined for failure to carry out his managerial duties.)

In a private company, that might be the end of it. In fact, Police Blotter covered a case earlier this month in which an employee of a private hospital was accused of viewing pornographic Web sites but lost his lawsuit for unlawful termination--even though it was possible the bookmarks were planted by malware.

Firing a government under Pennsylvania's Civil Service Act is far more difficult. Webb appealed, and the Pennsylvania State Civil Service Commission held three days of hearings on his case over a four-month period.

In its final order released in January 2007, the Civil Service Commission agreed that some of the e-mail messages could have been inappropriate but said that firing Webb was inappropriate. Instead, the Civil Service Commission ordered that Webb be reinstated and demoted to assistant highway maintenance manager without back pay.

Neither side liked that outcome. Webb wanted his old job and salary with back pay and claimed that the "chain of custody" of the CDs with his e-mail messages was fishy. PennDOT wanted to be rid of him completely.

Both appealed. On Monday, Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court left intact the Civil Service Commission's recommendations, saying they weren't obviously wrong. That means Webb will get his old job back, minus a one-level demotion. He's currently working for PennDOT as an assistant highway manager in Lancaster.

Excerpts from the court's opinion:
Webb argues he was not trained on the rules and he did not believe they were being enforced. He also claims that he was denied a fair and impartial (hearing) because PennDOT based its decision on (an investigator's) account of what she believed was objectionable without an independent review of the videos and e-mails by other PennDOT officials. Finally, he claims PennDOT ignored his exemplary work record. This court must reject each of these arguments.

First, the record establishes that the Internet and e-mail policy guidelines were sent to all employees, including Internet/E-mail User Agreement, and the January 27, 2003, Policy Memo issued to all PennDOT employees on standards for employee Internet and e-mail use. Webb signed the policies and acknowledged that he read them. The fact that Webb did not actually read them or believe they were enforced does not excuse his conduct. He remained bound by the provisions...

The commission's order demoting Webb, without back pay and without seniority accrual was not an abuse of discretion in light of the evidence. His actions involved an abuse of the authority entrusted to him in his leadership position. The fact that he lost salary and seniority due was consistent with a demotion. There was no abuse of discretion...

Applying the prima facie standard, PennDOT proved Webb violated the Internet and e-mail policies. Webb stored on his H drive jokes and e-mails which the commission found were inappropriate and non work-related. The commission credited the testimony of several of Webb's superiors who felt that Webb did not set a positive role model or lead by example when he violated the computer policies. They testified that they could not rely on and trust Webb to adhere to and uphold and enforce the agency's policies. They believed termination was warranted because Webb condoned his own staff's violations of the very policies he was charged with enforcing...

PennDOT couches the issue in terms of a capricious disregard of evidence, however, PennDOT essentially requests this court to substitute its judgment for that of the commission and find that the videos and e-mails at issue rise to a level that is either sexually suggestive, obscene or pornographic...As long as the commission exercised reasonable discretion in arriving at its findings, this court must affirm.

See more CNET content tagged:
Pennsylvania, Police Blotter, bureaucrat, firing, e-mail message

7 comments

Join the conversation!
Add your comment
What an idiot court system
A high level employee is absent from his assigned work station during assigned hours. When present he engages in non-work actions, sends emails containing words and pictures that are or approach pornography. He violates rules that he was supposed to be enforcing while claiming he wasn't aware of it. A Pennsylvania court says he can only be demoted.

All Pennsylvania residents please keep your judges away from the judges of other states. Your judges affliction may be contagious.
Posted by shanedr (155 comments )
Reply Link Flag
He should be Fired
He deliberately abused the policy which he was suppose to uphold. I think he should be fired immediately. If he is not, then he should at least have extremely restricted access to the computer.
Posted by Michael00360 (58 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Wow, no back pay?
Usually people in public offices end up getting back pay on top of it all.
Posted by skrubol (181 comments )
Reply Link Flag
nice
If he worked for the govt. agency I work for he would have promoted and his pay doubled
Posted by mrmagoo2015 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Hey c/net . . .
You really ought to change the name of this column from "Police-
Blotter" to "Judicial-Blotter" or "Court-Report" or sometthing like
that since 99% of the stories have absolutely nothing to do with the
police while 100% of the reports concern court rulings.

Just a suggestion.
Posted by K.P.C. (227 comments )
Reply Link Flag
interesting point
You're right that this week's was about a civil dispute.

On the other hand, last week's was about a ID theft conviction. In September, I wrote about a DOJ criminal case, a porn spammer criminal case, a civil LAPD case with criminal components.

If you have a better name, feel free to suggest it. :)
Posted by declan00 (848 comments )
Link Flag
 

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot

Discussions

Shared

RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.