Los Angeles Times

Data breach probe snares city staffers

Most of Huntington Park’s finance office is put on leave, and one employee is arrested.

- By Adam Elmahrek and Ruben Vives

Almost the entire roster of Huntington Park’s Finance Department was placed on administra­tive leave and one staffer was arrested as part of an investigat­ion into a records breach that has sparked competing claims of wrongdoing by city employees.

A statement issued by the city Wednesday said officials became aware of a “large-scale security breach of electronic financial records at Huntington Park City Hall” that was “intercepte­d and contained” by the city’s informatio­n technology division. The Huntington Park Police Department initiated a criminal investigat­ion, according to the statement.

The statement said the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Cyber Crimes Bureau was requested to assist with the investigat­ion and is now the lead agency. The statement added that a 48-year-old city employee was arrested and booked on felony charges but did not specify what they were.

City officials said that they did not believe residents’ records were accessed but that they were continuing to assess the breach as part of the investigat­ion.

Budget analyst Teresa Garcia was arrested last week on suspicion of unauthoriz­ed computer access and identity theft, according to a summary of the charges in a complaint that she filed with the city contesting the allegation­s.

On Monday, five other Finance

Department employees were escorted from City Hall by Huntington Park police, according to their attorney, Oshea Orchid, who also represents Garcia.

The departures led to the closure of the Finance Department, which handles payroll, budgets, licensing fees and other financial transactio­ns, on Monday and part of Tuesday.

Orchid said Garcia and the others placed on leave did nothing wrong. She alleged that the department staffers are being targeted in an attempted coverup of suspicious bank transfers

and city contracts that some employees say are being improperly awarded to companies with political ties.

“We believe that management is concerned about them having access to informatio­n about the budget and bank accounts, because the employee arrested was someone with a great deal of access to bank accounts and transfers,” Orchid said.

The city’s employee union this week filed a document with the state Public Employment Relations Board alleging unfair labor practices and a pattern of city officials targeting Finance Department employees for retaliatio­n.

The events unfolded after officials discovered that a finance staffer had allegedly “captured employee identity informatio­n” in what Mayor Graciela Ortiz called “a serious breach of confidenti­al data.”

City Atty. Arnold Alvarez-Glasman told The Times an investigat­ion into the alleged data breach started April 8, the day Garcia was arrested.

City officials confirmed that six staffers in the ninemember Finance Department were on leave.

One of those remaining was Finance Director Nita McKay, Orchid said.

Few details have emerged about the bizarre episode.

Reached by phone, McKay declined to answer questions. Alvarez-Glasman confirmed that a number of employees were placed on administra­tive leave but would not provide more details, citing the need for confidenti­ality.

Ortiz said the Finance

Department staffers were placed on temporary paid administra­tive leave to “maximize the integrity of the ongoing [Sheriff’s Department] investigat­ion.”

City officials issued a notice Monday to employees about the breach, adding that “financial records, as well as personal and other confidenti­al informatio­n of all employees associated with the City financial systems, are secure.”

Still, the notice encouraged employees to “remain vigilant against incidents of identity theft or fraud.” It stated that “informatio­n involved in the data breach” could include “Social Security number, birth date, driver’s license number, financial account informatio­n, or medical informatio­n.”

“The City, along with partner law enforcemen­t agencies, are conducting a criminal investigat­ion to determine the gravity of this incident,” the notice said.

On April 8, Huntington Park police detained Garcia and seized “all of her belongings” including her phone, smartwatch and hard drive, according to a legal claim she filed Monday against the city, which added that “she was then fully searched and put in a cell” for several hours.

The claim said she began downloadin­g financial records to a hard drive in 2019, when she became “concerned that City Officials may be mishandlin­g public funds and that the City’s contracts may be given out to certain companies due to their political ties rather than the City following its procedure.”

She also learned that the FBI “was investigat­ing the City based on allegation­s of this nature,” the claim said. The claim is a precursor to a lawsuit.

“Concerned about being implicated in corruption in the City, Garcia continued her practice of saving her work and related accounting materials to a backup drive,” the claim said.

A spokeswoma­n for the FBI said the agency would neither confirm nor deny an investigat­ion as a matter of policy.

Alvarez-Glasman said Garcia’s concerns were “misplaced.” But he said the allegation­s of corruption prompted the city to refer the investigat­ion to the Sheriff ’s Department.

Questions remain about how the city will operate with most of its Finance Department staff absent.

Alvarez-Glasman said city officials were “taking steps in which to ensure that the financial circumstan­ces and operations are being properly administer­ed,” but he didn’t elaborate.

On Monday afternoon, residents took walks around the grassy City Hall courtyard and a few people sat at picnic tables.

Inside, a woman stood behind a desk surrounded by plexiglass.

Asked whether the Finance Department was open, she said no. She didn’t know why the department was closed but said payments could be dropped off at a bin just outside City Hall on Miles Avenue.

Fernie Gonzalez, a resident, said he was inside City Hall and noticed that the Finance Department was locked and not open for business.

“Nobody was inside,” he said. “It was all dark.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the city posted a notice on Facebook saying that the Finance Department was “open to make water, business license and pet license payments.”

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