FBI investigates school district

Last Friday, federal officials requested Rockford School District officials’ help in “securing and preserving certain evidence in connection with an ongoing federal investigation,” according to a press release issued Monday by Ellen Bueschel, interim superintendent.

Reportedly, the FBI is being assisted in this investigation by other northern Illinois law enforcement agencies

The Rock River Times learned in late October that specific, current and former school administrators may be targets of the probe. The probe allegedly involves unauthorized conduct concerning district computers. At the request of key individuals aware of the alleged improprieties, The Rock River Times chose to not print an article during that time, to not interfere with the investigation.

Bueschel said district personal and laptop computers were “secured” last Friday afternoon. Also, the e-mail server and another unspecified computer server were “taken off-line.” E-mail service was restored by Monday. The district has approximately 10,000 computers in its network, one of the largest in the area.

Allegedly, a remote monitoring system known as E-Blaster or spyware was used to enter computers not associated with the school district. Their e-mail was allegedly monitored to track their activity

It is not known what was done with the two servers that were “secured.” In total, 18 computers were “secured.”

In addition, the servers or laptops may have been used to conduct and host commercial businesses.

Also, lower-grade computers may have been purchased, with the district being charged for higher-grade computers. Sources also allege that laptops were given to some to ensure their cooperation in possible illegal activity.

School district supplies, some funded partially by federal funds, may also have been sold to commercial establishments.

Sources alleged attorneys Tom Lester and Ellen Lynch of Hinshaw and Culbertson, the district’s law firm, were presented evidence and conducted an earlier internal investigation that found no wrongdoing.

Board member Mike Williams said Hinshaw and Culbertson was involved in the internal investigation “by nature of representing District 205.” Williams said he couldn’t answer questions concerning whether Hinshaw and Culbertson lawyers Lynch or Lester were involved in the internal investigation. Repeated efforts to reach Lynch and Lester were not successful.

Williams also said he couldn’t comment on whether the federal probe and internal investigation were linked. When asked about the specific names of possible targets of the federal probe, Williams said, “I have no idea who’s being targeted, if anyone.”

Since 2001, Hinshaw and Culbertson contributed $2,322.92 in cash and in-kind contributions to two school district referenda.

Lester was one of the legal representatives for Rockford School District 205 in the desegregation lawsuit and is also a U.S. Bankruptcy Court trustee.

Board members Karol Hammond and Alice Saudargas expressed their concern and have questioned whether the internal investigation was a thorough investigation.

Hammond and Saudargas made their comments in Sunday’s Rockford Register Star. According to the article, the internal investigation was conducted by Bueschel and Tom Hoffman, the district’s chief financial officer.

Board member Jay Nellis said he thought federal investigators were involved because the computers are reportedly linked to use of federal funds.

School officials said Monday an unidentified school employee was expected to testify in front of a federal grand jury.

The following is Rockford School District Interim Superintendent Ellen Bueschel’s Nov. 17 press release concerning the federal probe: “Over this past weekend, there have been various reports in the news media regarding an investigation by federal law enforcement officials involving the Rockford Public Schools’ computer systems. While I cannot comment extensively, I do want to communicate the facts to the community, to the extent possible.

“On Friday, Nov. 14, 2003, school district officials were contacted by federal law enforcement officials requesting that the school district cooperate with federal authorities in securing and preserving certain evidence in connection with an ongoing federal investigation. Part of the request involved taking some of the district’s servers off-line, including the e-mail server. The district agreed to this request and, in fact, has worked closely with the federal authorities in cooperating with their request. At approximately 4 p.m. last Friday, the school district’s e-mail server, as well as another server, were taken off-line. While the school district has been diligently working over the weekend, in consultation with federal authorities, to restore all computer services, e-mail service was interrupted for a time, but has now been restored.

“In addition, federal authorities requested that certain computer equipment, i.e., PCs and laptops, be secured. The federal authorities made clear that no inferences could be drawn as a result of this request and we ask that you draw none.

“We are informed that the investigation does not involve any activity or conduct of the school district, but may involve unauthorized conduct by district employees. No conclusions can or should be reached at this time. Contrary to some news media reports, no district property has been seized by federal authorities and none has been turned over by the school district. The school district, through its legal counsel, is working with the federal authorities to protect the privacy rights of the school district, our students and our employees.

“While there has been speculation as to the scope and nature of the federal investigation, it is premature at this time to draw any conclusions. The school district will continue to cooperate with the federal authorities and should any school district employee be involved in any wrongdoing, appropriate action will be taken. I will keep the community advised as appropriate and I thank you in advance for your patience and understanding.”

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