Bal­ti­more IT di­rec­tor is on leave

Deputy re­places of­fi­cial who was at the helm dur­ing ran­somware at­tack and city’s re­cov­ery

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Ian Dun­can

Frank John­son, the Bal­ti­more IT di­rec­tor who City Coun­cil mem­bers have crit­i­cized for his lead­er­ship dur­ing this sum­mer’s re­cov­ery from a crip­pling ran­somware at­tack, is on leave, the mayor’s of­fice said Tues­day.

His deputy, Todd Carter, is serv­ing as act­ing di­rec­tor.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Demo­cratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, con­firmed that John­son was on leave. Davis de­clined to com­ment on the rea­sons for that or when John­son might re­turn, say­ing it was a con­fi­den­tial personnel mat­ter.

Davis said the city’s re­cov­ery from the ran­somware is all but com­plete and the mayor is con­fi­dent Carter will con­tinue the work of se­cur­ing the city’s com­puter net­works in John­son’s ab­sence.

“This has no bear­ing or im­pact on the city’s con­tin­ued restora­tion and re­cov­ery,” Davis said, call­ing Carter, “pre­pared to step in and lead.”

John­son could not be reached for com­ment. The Bal­ti­more Brew news site first re­ported his leave.

John­son joined the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Demo­cratic Mayor Cather­ine Pugh in late 2017, craft­ing a strategic plan to over­haul the city’s IT sys­tems. With a salary of $250,000 he is the top paid city of­fi­cial, but he took a sig­nif­i­cant pay cut from his prior role as a se­nior sales­man for In­tel to join city govern­ment.

John­son told The Bal­ti­more Sun in June that he took the job be­cause he saw an op­por­tu­nity to “dig­i­tally trans­form the en­tire com­mu­nity.”

But he has faced sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges in his al­most two years on the job and scru­tiny of a kind he did not re­ceive in pri­vate in­dus­try.

Since John­son took over, the city has twice fallen vic­tim to ran­somware at­tacks. The first in the spring of 2018 was mi­nor, but the one that be­gan in May left the city reel­ing. Real es­tate sales were briefly halted, city em­ploy­ees lost ac­cess to email, and wa­ter bills could not be is­sued for three months. The cost of the at­tack has been es­ti­mated at $18 mil­lion.

The city’s Depart­ment of Pub­lic Works be­gan is­su­ing wa­ter bills again in early Au­gust, restor­ing the last ma­jor pub­lic ser­vice the at­tack dis­rupted.

Coun­cil lead­ers pub­licly crit­i­cized John­son for his han­dling of the at­tack’s af­ter­math and he ac­knowl­edged the city did not have a writ­ten dis­as­ter re­cov­ery plan be­fore the sec­ond in­ci­dent.

Demo­cratic Coun­cil­man Eric Costello, chair­man of a new coun­cil cy­ber­se­cu­rity com­mit­tee, faulted John­son Tues­day for that lack of such a plan and poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the wake of the at­tack.

“I think that Frank is not the right per­son to lead the city’s IT ef­forts,” Costello said. “I’ve been very vo­cal about that.”

Stefanie Mavro­nis, a spokes­woman for Demo­cratic City Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Bran­don Scott, said the pres­i­dent’s of­fice was told Mon­day morn­ing that John­son was on leave.

Mavro­nis said the cy­ber­se­cu­rity com­mit­tee Scott set up would mon­i­tor the on­go­ing re­cov­ery ef­fort. Costello said an ini­tial com­mit­tee hear­ing has yet to be sched­uled.

Carter only re­cently joined the city, hav­ing pre­vi­ously worked in a se­nior IT role for Ex­elon. He could not be reached for com­ment.

Costello said he did not know what the mayor’s long-term plan was for lead­er­ship of the IT of­fice, but said Carter was “in­tel­lec­tu­ally ca­pa­ble and re­spon­sive.”

“Those are things I’m look­ing for in the leader of an agency,” Costello said.

John­son’s leave fol­lows a pair of se­nior IT depart­ment man­agers be­ing re­placed in July. The mayor’s of­fice said at the time that those moves were not con­nected to the ran­somware at­tack.

The city has not ex­plained how its net­work fell vic­tim to hack­ers, who locked up files and de­manded pay­ment for the keys. The mayor refused to pay and the city be­gan the ar­du­ous job of clean­ing its sys­tems, restor­ing its files and get­ting ser­vices back on­line. In the mean­time, some func­tions were car­ried out us­ing pen and paper or ad hoc work­arounds such as hastily set up Gmail ac­counts.

In July, the city dis­closed it paid $5 mil­lion to ven­dors help­ing with the re­cov­ery and bud­get of­fi­cials ex­pected the cost to ul­ti­mately reach $10 mil­lion. The re­main­ing pro­jected costs were a re­sult of lost and de­ferred rev­enue.


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