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2012-08-16

City hall was bugged, say security experts no details on when & by whom, however

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

While providing a security analysis for officials with the City of Bandera in June, San Antonio investigators apparently discovered several security breaches at the municipal building, according to a recent report.

Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Schumacher offered the findings to city council during a budget workshop on Thursday, August 9. During a security sweep of the building in June, several signs instructed city employees and elected officials not to enter the facility. Despite the posted admonitions, however, former Municipal Judge Lynn Holt and his then-municipal clerk disregarded the directive in order to review pending court cases on a Saturday. They were escorted from the building prior to the investigators initiating the security sweep.

Municipal offices bugged

"The investigators couldn't tell when the security breaches occurred or who had initiated them, but the firm's report clearly indicates that something had been done, including the bugging of municipal offices," Schumacher said.

According the Schumacher, to stop the flow of confidential information, the first thing the firm advised the city to do was to seal myriad doors leading from the former police department, the city secretary's office and the fire department. As one perennial city-watcher pointed out, "There were more doors in that municipal building than in a French farce."

Security investigators also discovered that insulation had been removed from a ceiling area shared by the fire department and the municipal building. This enabled conversations taking place in the office of the city administrator and the area where executive sessions were held to be easily monitored from the kitchen area.

Wires leading from the city secretary's office to offices in the former police department were also discovered. "We were told a video camera had been installed at some point in the city secretary's office," Schumacher said.

Former mayors had also shared the office.

Phones tapped

Other evidence uncovered that led investigators to conclude that the city side of the building had been compromised included bundled wires in a closet housing telephone connections. This enabled entities to monitor calls made from specific numbers. Also, numerous pushpins and thumbtacks had been placed near the ceiling in city council chamber, the former judge's office and the office once shared by the mayor and city secretary.

"(City Administrator) Mike (Cardenas) and I had never questioned the presence of pins and screws so close to the ceiling, now we can't stop looking at them." Schumacher said in an interview, "The security experts knew immediately what the odd placement signified."

Apparently, inappropriately placed pushpins are used to get eyes accustomed to something being at that location. When someone wanted to record a meeting or private conversation, they simply substituted a tiny microphone for the pushpin. As in the Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter," this was the case of hiding a listening device "in plain sight."

Furniture rearranged

Additionally, investigators almost immediately pinpointed one chair that had cuts in paper covering the underside of the seat and plastic protectors removed from two legs.

"We were told that apparently microphones and receivers had been inserted in the bottom of the chair," Cardenas said. "The chair was then strategically placed near the judge's office when city council had an executive session scheduled. Of course the chairs closest to the door were carried inside the office for extra seating."

Interestingly, for years, City Secretary Linda Boshek had complained to former City Administrator Gene Foerster and former Mayor Horst Pallaske that "someone was rearranging furniture at night," Cardenas said. "Of course, they didn't believe Linda and said it was her imagination."

Schumacher continued, "The bottom line is that the report indicates there is no doubt the building had been bugged and telephone conversations had been monitored at one time. Steps are now being put in place to ensure this never happens again."

Fixing leaks

Three superfluous doors have been blocked, limiting access to the municipal building from the fire department. According to Cardenas, because the volunteers can no longer use the kitchen in city hall, the city will provide them with a sink, microwave and refrigerator. He added, "There will be no more free access to this building."

During the last executive session, an unidentified person had entered the kitchen from the fire station. Fortunately, that particular closed meeting was held in the Bandera County Public Library rather than in the city administrator's office adjacent to the kitchen.

Council members will be asked to approve the installation of cameras in the back hall of the municipal building to monitor those entering the building from that access point. Bids will go out for security system for all windows. Locks to all doors have been changed - yet again - and a lock will be placed on the closet housing the telephone system.

"Once the bids for the window security system come in, city council will review the numbers and approve a provider," Schumacher said.

Backstory

This investigation underscores actions that began Sept. 7, 2011, when Pallaske and Municipal Attorney Barbara Boulware-Wells called an emergency meeting of city council. Earlier that day, allegations had surfaced that officers with the now-defunct police department had routinely recorded conversations throughout the municipal building. However, by a 2-3 vote, with Schumacher and Councilman Binky Archer casting the "yea" votes, city council declined to place city law enforcement personnel on paid administrative leave pending an investigation of alleged criminal activity.

Last year's brouhaha was initiated when Schumacher and a computer tech attempted to make a copy of the police department's hard drive - again on the advice of counsel. Throughout the last year, there have been numerous attempts to breach the firewalls protecting the computers used by the former police officers.

An account of the contentious 2011 meeting was published in the Sept. 15, 2011, edition of the Bandera County Courier.

Councilman John Hegemier later explained his "nay" vote in the matter, saying, "We could have suspended them, but if an investigation turned up nothing, we would have looked foolish. Besides, if any bugs were there, they're gone by now."

As indicated by security investigators, however, although listening and recording devices placed by some entity might indeed have been removed, evidence of their placement lingers on nearly a year later.

Pictured: Slits in the bottom of a chair in the city council chamber provided a perfect opportunity for an illicit listening post, according to security experts.

When is a pushpin in a strange place - in this case in the wall near the ceiling - not a pushpin - when it's replaced by a tiny microphone.

Holes used for access.

Bottom: To the uninitiated, this just looks like a jumble of different colored wires, but to security experts, it's an easy crude, but effective, telephone tap.