NorthEscambia.com Investigates: Escambia Employee Makes Anonymous Records Request To Identify Anonymous Citizen (And Why It Won’t Work)

May 27, 2021

An anonymous Escambia County employee has made an anonymous public records request in an apparent effort to potentially reveal the identity of the person that made an anonymous email record requests for documents on retirement plans. And the whole thing may go to the Florida Attorney General to settle a disagreement between the county administrator and the county attorney.

As confusing as all that sounds, NorthEscambia.com obtained the information a county department head won’t release, and we found it won’t work to identify the anonymous citizen.

Here’s What Happened, And What We Found

The county received an email request in late April from an email address with no name — an email that on the surface appears to not identify the sender. The person made an anonymous request for details on a county retirement plan, board minutes regarding the plan and who in county government might qualify for money under a settlement (more on that later).

The anonymous email was received from a VFEmail.net, a company that provides email services. It was sent using a free account, according to the email taglines, but the company promises paid services “to keep your email out of the NSA’s hands.”

Escambia County IT Director Bart Siders was asked by an anonymous county employee to provide the IP address of the citizen who made the public records request, according to a May 19 email from County Administrator Janice Gilley to Attorney General Ashley Moody. Florida’s public records laws allow for anonymous public records requests, including verbal and written or email requests. The actual email or written anonymous public records requests themselves become public records.

An internet IP address can often be used to locate the device that sent an email and possibly reveal the identity of the person using the device, thus potentially unmasking the person behind the anonymous public records request. Every email includes a large section of “headers,” typically hidden by email readers, that detail the path a message took across the internet and may include an identifying IP address of the original sender.

“Chilling Effect” — Is Anonymous Really Anonymous

“The IT Director (Siders) believed it would be unethical, and a violation of the anonymity provisions in Chapter 119 (Florida public records law) as a public entity, to effectively identify that person making the request through providing their IP address. I agreed with his decision,” Gilley wrote.

“This has placed the IT Director, and me as his supervisor, in a precarious position that requires your opinion,” Gilley continued her email to the attorney general. “Do we violate the trust of the citizen who reasonably expected anonymity as provided by Chapter 119? Or do we violate Chapter 119 by not providing this IP address?”

“I fear that allowing this to occur could have a chilling effect on persons making anonymous requests as their anonymity would be compromised,” Gilley wrote.

Escambia County Attorney Alison Rogers disagrees, saying the header containing IP addresses is part of the email and thus public record.

“Under Florida law, a public record must be disclosed unless there is a specific exemption,” Rogers told NorthEscambia.com. “We consulted with the Attorney General’s Office. They found no exemption and advised that it was a public record that must be disclosed.”

Gilley asked the attorney general to render an official opinion, but she was advised that the AG’s office would only issue an opinion on the matter if requested by a majority of the county commission.

In an email to commissioners on Wednesday, Gilley said she will not be present at the June 3 BOCC meeting, but she plans to bring it up for discussion at a later board meeting.

NorthEscambia.com Investigation Obtains IP Addresses, Traces Original Email

Thursday afternoon, NorthEscambia.com obtained the anonymous public records request email, including the headers containing IP addresses that the county’s IT director would not release to the anonymous county employee.

Our staff conducted a technical review of the headers and investigated each and every IP address that appears. We found nothing that could be used to identify the original device that sent the email, or the originating location. We also consulted with an certified international cybersecurity expert who also carefully analyzed the email headers. His analysis echoed our findings.

The headers reveal the anonymous email from the VFEmail user traveled through a VFEmail server in the Netherlands. It was then relayed through a VFEmail.net server in France. The message then went through a server operated by enterprise security company Proofpoint in Kansas before heading out of the Midwest on Level 3 Communications, an internet network provider, before arriving at Escambia County’s server.

In simpler English, the email traveled in a series of hops across Europe and the United States that cannot be traced back to the sender’s device or their identity. The headers and IP addresses appear as if the email originated from VFEmail’s servers, not the original sender.

The email was truly anonymous.

What Exactly Did The Anonymous Email Request?

The original anonymous email public records request is above (click to enlarge).

The VFEmail user asked for a copy of the contract or agreement for management of the county’s 401(a) retirement plan, the board minutes where it was approved, and a list of employees and commissioners that would qualify for a “settlement” presented to the Florida Commission on Ethics along with the amount they might receive.

In March, Commissioner Steven Barry and County Attorney Alison Rogers went before the ethics commission concerning retirement plans. There were no allegations of ethical wrongdoing against Barry, Rogers or anyone else; instead they were seeking permission for the BOCC to vote on the employee benefit issue.

Barry contended that after he was first elected in 2012, the county’s human resources department did not tell him, other commissioners and other eligible county employees about the existence of a 401(a) annuity plan, only the normal Florida Retirement system plan. He did not know about the plan until months into his second term, past a six month eligibility period. He did sign up as his third term started.

Barry asked for a settlement approval from the ethics commission that would allow payments to him, other commissioners and other county employees that were not told about the annuity plan by human resources. The ethics commission agreed that the county commission could vote on paying lost earnings from the 401(a) plan to impacted commissioners and county employees. To date, the BOCC has not voted on the issue, and no payments have been made.


Comments

30 Responses to “NorthEscambia.com Investigates: Escambia Employee Makes Anonymous Records Request To Identify Anonymous Citizen (And Why It Won’t Work)”

  1. Michael P McCormack on June 6th, 2021 11:53 pm

    Jacqueline Rogers – I apologize for my incorrect assumption. It seems that you are correct in that only the Commissioners and Senior management are eligible for the 401(a) plan. I was not aware that information was contained in documents you were privy to via files available thru members on ECW.
    Bryan Caro- The Commission is not in a Special Risk Class either. According to the FRS tables I saw they are in the HI/PI class – County, City, Special District Elected Officers, Employer Contribution rate 49.18%.
    But you are correct in that it is not the same class as Public Safety personnel, they should fall in the HB/PB class, Employer Contribution Rate 24.45%
    Which by the way is 14.5% higher than other rank and file employees in the HA/PA _ Regular class at 10.00%
    And you are aware that these rates are set by the State legislature, not the County Commission. So the Commissioners could not change that in the first place.

  2. Bryan Caro on May 31st, 2021 11:35 am

    @Michael McCormack

    Feet on the street aren’t privy to the 401(a) retirement plan. 457(b) is what the commoners get. For a Commissioner to be in a special risk class along with those who are actually risking their lives and livelihood is a joke. Besides, he would have contacted all Union presidents/Eboards and advised them as well. They could have helped w/ his request. If you seriously consider for one millisecond they are looking out for us, you are delusional. If so, I will publicly apologize.

  3. Rasheed Jackson on May 31st, 2021 7:12 am

    A whole lot of anonymity going on here. Sounds like someone is keeping secrets, and maybe some special deals being cut under the table.

  4. Dean on May 30th, 2021 4:09 pm

    Ok first I need to state that I am a recognized expert on Florida’s Public Records law. I have to respond because most here are not stating facts but opinions, many of which have no legal basis. And also first understand the term “public records.” It does not refer to the open or closed status of public records but rather means simply “records of a public agency.” Now to the law which is the the only relevant consideration here. Per the law, the only public records that are closed to the public are those that have been determined to be by Florida statute. No other consideration exists. It’s just that simple. Whether you like it or not public agencies cannot withhold public records which unless there is a specific statutory exemption which makes the record “limited” access. And Florida law takes into account federal law in this regard. Public employees who knowingly refuse to provide access to public records that are open can be fined and jailed for doing so. Specifically here, it appears that the email cited does not fall under any statute, state or federal, permitting it to be withheld from a public record request…whether you could determine who sent it or not. And although it has no bearing here, do note that you cannot tell “who” sent an email from an IP address. The best you can determine would be the region or area it originated from. The only way you could know who sent it is by court order to the email provider, etc.

    The email here should have been provided promptly to the requester. I’m sorry to see local public legal authorities who obviously don’t have a sufficient understanding of the law and the nature of email communications. And know this, as often stated in emails from those in public agencies. Overwhelmingly, your email to anyone in a public organization, is going to be open public record and is available to anyone who requests it. I don’t care how confidential you consider it, doesn’t matter. Unless it is of a nature that it falls under a statutory exemption from disclosure it is open public record available to anyone. And I can tell you that would be a real exception and 99.9 percent of public email is open to the public.

  5. Alex Arduini on May 29th, 2021 10:12 pm

    16 total county employees including 4 of the commissioners. The 12 employees are the executive level employees consisting of the county attorney, county administrator and most of the department heads. The complete list, provided by the county, is a hand written legal pad note on yellow paper. The settlement request is real, the ethics filing is real and the weaponizing of our county government is real if we allow them to unmask this resident. This should scare every freedom loving American, you can help by contacting the commissioners and tell them to protect our privacy rights. If the “county employee” can remain anonymous because they can speak with the county attorney in person, then an anonymous public records request should also remain anonymous and free from retaliation. Why else would they want to know who asked for the records?

  6. Alex Arduini on May 28th, 2021 5:10 pm

    Commissioner Barry gaveled in a motion to continue the local option 401a, plus he is a financial planner. So the “I didn’t know about it” excuse does not hold water. Commissioner Barry stands to make $250,000 and the county attorney stands to make close to $1 Million dollars from this “lost earnings settlement”!

  7. erik on May 28th, 2021 3:34 pm

    Its time the fighting stops. Ms Pino seems like a nice lady. If you expect to get anything done you cant go to public forum hurling insults. I would say use the 3 minutes to say things that are productive. Its time to extend the right hand of fellowship and say look Commissioner Underhill im sorry can we start over. I wanna see our commissioners working for the greater common good.

  8. Kristi Mitchell on May 28th, 2021 8:39 am

    @ Mel Pino–

    Thanks for opening up with your legal issues.
    I know it’s hard on you and your family, being in the legal spotlight all the time.
    Very tragic and sad.

  9. Well on May 27th, 2021 8:44 pm

    Please stop making candidate for District2 county commission think anyone cares what she thinks

    We don’t.

  10. Perry D on May 27th, 2021 6:29 pm

    I’m not sure who is right about the anonymous/not anonymous issue, but I’d be really interested to see the information requested too – particularly how many employees would be paid and what the total cost would be.

  11. Anon on May 27th, 2021 6:18 pm

    What County employees would have access to Public records requests to even know to make a request for the citizen’s anonymous request? Is this misuse of an employee’s position?

  12. Melissa Pino on May 27th, 2021 5:29 pm

    Kristi Mitchell, I don’t recognize your name and don’t recall ever meeting you. Are we acquainted in some way I’m not remembering?

    I’ve never been subpoena’d. I was sued by the Medical Director of Escambia County on a frivolous suit, and prevailed on all counts, was awarded forfeiture of her bond and court costs, and got a bad ruling by the original judge overturned.

    I retained Clark Partington for a land use issue and to protect Navy Point Park from development.

    I retained Kim Skievaski to represent me in response to an ask for an interview from the state’s attorney’s office on the EMS cases.

    Not sure why any of this elicits your sympathy?

  13. erik on May 27th, 2021 4:54 pm

    This county is always about something one thing about You cant blame this on Gene Valentino

  14. Michael P McCormack on May 27th, 2021 4:11 pm

    I see an awful lot of misunderstanding and assumptions by some in the responses thus far.
    Bryan Caro – “Lastly what’s funny also is their worried about their pension and not the pensions of the feet on the street.”
    I guess you didn’t read this part of the article, “Barry asked for a settlement approval from the ethics commission that would allow payments to him, other commissioners and other county employees” If you are a County employee and were not told about the 401(a) plan then you might be entitled to compensation. It’s not just Commissioners that will be impacted by this decision. That could possibly have an impact on countless other employees that were not informed of the options available to them. That could include Fire, EMS, Clerk of Court, basically any and all employees. But it had to be brought before the Ethics Commission to verify the Commissioners (all of them) could vote on something that could impact them personally. Sounds like proper procedure was followed in obtaining that decision. It is not the fault of the Commissioners if the HR Director failed to inform employees of their options when the plan was instated, that was solely their responsibility.
    All of the above is also tied to this
    Jacqueline – “Do you know which Senior Management employees (not regular employees) are also eligible for the 401(a) investment plan besides the commissioners?”
    Do we know that ONLY Senior Management are eligible? I have not seen any declaration by the News Media yet that states that as a fact. If it is out there somewhere, please accept my apology and point me to the source. Otherwise it is conjecture at this point and misleading.

  15. Alex Arduini on May 27th, 2021 1:32 pm

    Unmasking a private citizen for revenge is not a good thing. Janice Gilley, our County Administrator is fighting for the citizens while the county attorney is fighting to unmask the identity of the citizen so a county employee, probably the commissioner himself, can retaliate? This is not the Escambia County we moved to, and we need everyone to fight this!

  16. Melissa Pino on May 27th, 2021 11:43 am

    Emily I agree with you that the County needs to be more forthright about what constitutes public record and their ability to shield the anonymity of people who don’t understand how the technology works. I once had a member of County staff put in a big PRR for all of my communications with the commissioners with a handwritten note requesting anonymity–and then signed the note. Which of course then became public record.

    What really needs to happen, in my opinion, is that the County needs to set up an office to deal with PRRs. When Gilley instituted her “everything comes through administration” “efficiency” system, a bunch of us went–oh boy. You could see the direction it was headed. Of course, many of us continued to go directly to the source, as seasoned County staff know that Janice has no business inserting herself into that process if they are on the hook as the addressee of the request. But they also know their jobs are on the line with her simply for following the law. It has been a horrible place for staff the last two years with all of the public records games she has been running.

    She also asked IT to install software to constantly screenshot all of staff’s computer activity. As I understand it, Bart Siders originally balked on that, but I don’t know if she managed to get it done anyway. Is it legal? Sure. Is it one more thing to grind down staff morale? Absolutely. With the point being that not many are buying her babe in the woods non-comprehension act, and even worse dragging the AG’s office into it simply to stall things out and self-victimize and politic against the Board and the County Attorney’s office. The law is pretty clear. All the rest is just political smoke and mirrors.

  17. Kristi Mitchell on May 27th, 2021 11:23 am

    Well, if Melissa Pino hackles are raised, this must be a good thing that she’ll be subpoenaed again and sued.

    They must have a lot $$$$$ in the Pino Household to continue to hire lawyers.
    Poor Mr. Pino. Sad.

  18. Bryan Caro on May 27th, 2021 11:21 am

    Funny how all of a sudden they’re concerned about IP addresses… They’ll run that down because it involves them looking bad but when it comes to investigating computers and IP addresses and where something may have come from they couldn’t give a rats behind.

    Lastly what’s funny also is their worried about their pension and not the pensions of the feet on the street. I wouldn’t expect anything more though and neither should anybody else.

  19. Emily Fouche' on May 27th, 2021 11:05 am

    I comprehend very well what’s going on. I’m just questioning the legality of it all since it’s a public records request.

  20. Melissa Pino on May 27th, 2021 10:02 am

    Ten to one Gilley recruited somebody to put that original request in, or she did it herself. She knows all about IP addresses. In fact, that’s how she set up unknowing staff on her bogus “Anonymous Employee Tip Line.” The savvy ones knew not to fall into her clutches that way.

    Jacqueline Rogers and the rest of the Escambia Disinformation Warroom are well aware IP addresses are public record. They are just pretending they don’t. Now she is claiming Bart Siders is her “hero.” For which thing? Feigned ignorance of public records law, or foolish devotion?

    How do you suppose Jim Little got the information? Doug first, and then Doug and Janice together, ran the exact same game on Fire’s vote of no confidence, the “leaked” DOH complaint, the “leaked” medical billing fiasco, the “leaked” Matt Selover letter (I have Laura Coale’s text messages on that nasty piece of inside work), and the ridiculous lie that Matt Coughlin had told John Dosh to run a super secret evaluation on Dr. Edler. It’s also how Gilley set up her laughable “listening devices” garbage.

    She has a long history of these kinds of maneuvers, but combine it with Doug’s special talents and we’ll be lucky if there’s even a County left when they’re done with it. She’s obviously trying to at least set things up for a fat suit against the BOCC if she gets terminated.

    They should have gotten rid of her a year ago when it was clear she was in over her head. So what if she sues the County? Take the hit and remove her. Or ask her what her number is on resignation. If it’s money she wants, write her a fat check and move on. That will cost far less than leaving her on to continue with these games, which waste the taxpayers money in abundance daily.

  21. Jacqueline on May 27th, 2021 9:18 am

    Oversight said:
    “A request shouldn’t be necessary because all documents and all correspondence ought to be published publicly in the sunshine 24/7/365 on the county’s website.”

    I totally agree! It would save staff time and citizen costs and intimidation.
    I just (coincidentally?!) got the estimate letter for my public records request to the County Attorney this morning after posting, all for information they should have compiled before seeking the Ethics Opinion anyway, for $481 to fulfill my request! They don’t want to be transparent.

    And “Watching”,
    There is a lot more to ask about the Ethics Ruling.
    Have you seen the letter submitted by the attorney for the opinion and the video of what they told the Ethics Commission?
    Do you know which Senior Management employees (not regular employees) are also eligible for the 401(a) investment plan besides the commissioners?
    Do we know how much this payout will cost the taxpayers or how else it will be funded?
    Has anyone seen the HR election forms for retirement options to verify that a past HR Director didn’t advise them properly?
    You can assume that the public officials are telling the truth. It is media’s job to verify, especially when the County Attorney may be on the list of Senior Management eligible for the pay out from a list that she gave me (Just said “Rogers” so I asked her three weeks ago to verify if it was her.)
    Can other rank and file employees contest their choices also years later if they claim they were uninformed?

    Yes, it hasn’t been put on the agenda yet.
    Should we wait to ask questions until they pass it quickly in a Consent Agenda or Add On like they routinely do?

    Anonymous,
    I get your ironic statement there, signing anonymous yourself, but there are very good reasons that people would need to request information anonymously to avoid retaliation. This case seems like a perfect example.

  22. Why? on May 27th, 2021 8:58 am

    There is nothing wrong with the request of the citizen. There is nothing wrong with having a 401 plan. I believe all 401 plans call for an employee contribution and the employer pays a percentage match. I don’t understand how any county employee can have two (2) taxpayer based retirement plans. Those eligible should have the option to choose one or the other just as all other county employees.

  23. Oversight on May 27th, 2021 8:29 am

    A request shouldn’t be necessary because all documents and all correspondence ought to be published publicly in the sunshine 24/7/365 on the county’s website.

  24. Watching Escambia Citizens on May 27th, 2021 8:13 am

    “Very few details in the story about the tax payer funded settlement”

    It’s explain quite well in the story, and the commission hasn’t even discussed it. So nothing more to see here yet. And it’s not even the real topic of this story.

    Damn conspiracy theorists think Elected Officials are up to no good. What about the HR Director that did not so their job in the first place.

  25. Anonymous on May 27th, 2021 8:05 am

    The whole idea of anonymous should be illegal. To do anything anonymous is therein deceitful. It means you do not want your name attached thus removing accountability. This is a flaw in the system. We have this idea that anonymous is a good thing because you can allege “crimes” or “wrongdoings” without fear of retaliation. What about the person your saying committed the crime? Now they go through an unjust investigation, name smearing in the news, face threats and potentially more. Many times a false allegation can destroy a career or relationship; especially in todays cancel culture age. And that anonymous person faces no consequence for their false allegation and no consequence for their defamation. This would lead to a more transparent and honest society. Make anonymous illegal.

  26. Reading comprehension on May 27th, 2021 8:04 am

    ”All this really begs the question ” once they get the IP address what unlawful steps are they going to take to find out the name of the requestor?”

    You kinda missed a big part of the article. Northescambia has the IP address, and they explain here exactly what could be done with it.

  27. Emily Fouche' on May 27th, 2021 7:58 am

    There are Federal and State laws concerning this issue. When I worked for the County, the person making the did not have to give us their name and by law we were not allowed to ask. The County Administrator and the County Attorney should know these laws and abide by them. All this really begs the question ” once they get the IP address what unlawful steps are they going to take to find out the name of the requestor?” I can see big lawsuits over this issue.

  28. Jacqueline on May 27th, 2021 7:55 am

    Yay! We spend public resources trying to out citizen requests for information and paying out settlements to commissioners for not enough retirement investment return for their “part time jobs”!

    Meanwhile, we pay firefighters $10.79/hr and have dozens of vacant positions and EMS service is often unavailable to respond on many days (one night it was a 90 minute wait for an ambulance!) due to critical staffing issues.
    Roads and bridges need help.
    Glad to see our priorities are in the right place!

    Why not just answer the public records request?
    I have a non-anonymous records request on the same topic that is going on three weeks with no response from the County Attorney’s Office.
    What are they afraid of?

    How much of a “settlement” will taxpayers be liable for and how many people/who will be paid out?
    Maybe that can be investigated, Media?
    Very few details in the story about the tax payer funded settlement.

  29. Whisperjet on May 27th, 2021 6:59 am

    ..Escambia county must get hundreds of email every day, from ordinary citizens , disgruntled employees, complaints about county government, safety issues, bad management practices, complaints about county employees or even the commisioners and county admistrators and staff…These folks have a right to believe when they send these emails , that their identity would not be made known…
    I think Ms. Gilley is only trying to protect anyone who may want to remain anonymous…

  30. JustWondering on May 27th, 2021 6:24 am

    As tax payers, this should be made public record. Not the requesting email address (as they should fall under the whistle blower clause) ! Quit shifting the blame! Let the county tax payers know what’s going on. Trying to cover up, with a cover up!





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