Md. employees surf sexual sites at work, audit finds

March 09, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

Employees of the Maryland Aviation Administration and Maryland Transportation Authority used state-owned computers in "hundreds of instances" last year to visit sexually oriented Web sites during working hours, legislative auditors found in a report released yesterday.

The auditors were able to identify more than 20 employees of the two agencies who visited the sites, some of which included nude pictures and pornography.

The audit report said they included members of the transportation authority's police force, according to the Office of Legislative Audits. The auditors said the police who visited the Web sites did not do so for law enforcement purposes.

The General Assembly's investigators said they launched an inquiry at the two agencies, both units of the Maryland Department of Transportation, after receiving a tip through the office's fraud hot line. The employees were not named in the report.

Managers at the aviation administration and transportation authority said they agree with the auditors' findings and either have taken or will take disciplinary action against the employees the auditors identified.

"We as an agency take this very seriously," said Ronald Freeland, executive secretary of the transportation authority.

Freeland said his agency has already taken disciplinary action against some of the 16 employees. He said that under state personnel rules, he could not be more specific. He said the transportation police are investigating officers identified as having been involved.

The incidents have prompted the heads of both agencies to remind employees of existing state policies on improper Internet use. Freeland said a letter will go out this month to authority employees, each of whom will be required to sign a statement that they have read and understood it.

Timothy L. Campbell, the aviation agency's executive director, sent out a letter warning that employees who violate state Internet access policy could be subject to disciplinary action, including firing, according to agency spokesman Jonathan Dean. The aviation agency informed the auditors that the six employees they identified as misusing the Internet were immediately disciplined.

The aviation administration operates BWI Marshall Airport and Martin State Airport, while the transportation authority runs the state's toll facilities.

The report urged transportation officials to take further steps to block access to such Web sites from their computers. The auditors said that besides being a waste of state employees' work time, visits to such Web sites could expose the state to legal liability for allowing a hostile work environment or allowing the introduction of computer viruses.

The problem, the auditors said, extends far beyond the employees whose computer use they were able to trace.

The auditors said they found hundreds of other instances of visits to sexually explicit Web sites that could not be traced to specific employees. According to the report, the investigators conducted a review of computer activity during a 31-day period between September and December.

The audit said the aviation agency employees who visited the sites did so as often as 600 times during the review period. The transportation authority employees sought access to the "inappropriate" sites as often as 2,200 times.

Francie Dalton, a Columbia-based management consultant who has advised clients on Internet abuse issues, said the high number of site visits should come as no surprise for two reasons.

One is that it's addictive, she said.

"It's hard to stop once you start. You keep ratcheting up the explicitness of the images," said Dalton, president of Dalton Alliances Inc.

The other is that the sites themselves are programmed in a way that makes it difficult to get out of them -- or that pass the user trying to exit along to another porn site. "You can rack up probably 30 hits trying to X out of these sites," she said.

In many cases, she said, visits to the site infect the hard drive and content keeps coming up on the computer. "You've got to have an [information technology] professional who knows what they're doing to get stuff off there," Dalton said.

Both agencies said they would investigate computer use over a broader period than the auditors had -- an action that potentially could involve more state workers.

Dalton said adopting a policy is insufficient to stop such activity. "The most effective preventive measure is to tell all incoming and existing employees that their Internet activity will be monitored on a random basis," she said.

In most cases, she said, employers do not fire employees the first time they're caught.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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