It was standing room only as the Georgetown Divide Public Utility District held a special meeting Tuesday night after allegations surfaced that board member Kathy Otermat had removed private and confidential employee information from the district office.
After airing the allegations and hearing Otermat’s defense, the board voted to remove her as treasurer.
According to General Manager Hank White, the incident came to light on Aug. 8 when Otermat came to the office to sign checks as treasurer for the district. After she left, two employees contacted White and complained that Otermat had removed private information while there. White said he then contacted Board President Ray Griffiths and General Counsel William Wright and informed them of the incident. White said he met with staff the next day to discuss their concerns regarding a possible security breach.
On Aug. 13, the board received a letter from Chuck Thiel, a representative of the Stationary Engineers Union. In his letter he said that, “It has been brought to our attention that on Aug. 8, Ms. Kathy Otermat, in her capacity as treasurer of the Georgetown Divide Public Utility District, took photographs with her personal camera, pictures of documents containing employees’ Social Security numbers and other sensitive data protected by state and federal privacy laws. Now while within her capacity as treasurer she may have access to the information, taking personal photographs of this data jeopardizes its security and exposes the district to immense liability.”
Thiel went on to note that while what Otermat did was not illegal, her actions posed a security risk if the information became public and that she “be ordered to destroy all copies of private employee information in her possession immediately.”
On Aug. 14, Wright sent a letter to Otermat on behalf of the board. The letter referenced the apparent “copying and photographing personal employee information and other confidential GDPUD information, which you had requested to review as ‘backup’ information for checks you signed.”
Wright’s letter requested a number of things from Otermat, including the reason for her purpose in requesting access to the “backup” information for each check; an explanation and description of the information copied, transcribed or photographed; a copy of every piece of information transcribed and all copies of photographs taken on Aug. 8 at the GDPUD office; and an explanation, description and copies of all employee information, invoices, and other backup documents requested which Otermat may have copied, transcribed or photographed in the office at any time in the past.
Otermat responded to Wright’s letter two days later, saying that she was very busy and would get back to him in a few days. On Aug. 20, Wright again sent an e-mail to Otermat asking her to respond and to inform the district what personal information she had copied on Aug. 8 and on other occasions.
When Otermat continued not to respond and out of concern over a potential security breach, the decision was made to schedule the special board meeting on Aug. 21.
At the meeting, Griffiths noted that there were three actions the board could consider: destroy all copies of the private employee information taken; protect employees by purchasing a credit protection system such as LifeLock; and prevent what happened from ever happening again in the future.
Director Bonnie Neeley noted that when she was treasurer for the district, she never asked for backup documentation. She also said the checks that Otermat had been asked to sign were checks by employees to insurance companies like Aflac and to PERS and the backup information Otermat looked at included the employee’s name, Social Security number, and the kind of insurance they were buying.
“This is very private information,” she said. “I’m concerned what people might do with the information if it got out,” Neely said.
At this comment, some people in the audience questioned whether Otermat had actually done anything wrong.
Wright reported that he had received three employee complaints regarding the incident on Aug. 8 and there were potential liability issues because of the photo and transcribing that Otermat did. He said that after sending the letter to Otermat and the e-mail on Aug. 20, he still had not received any information from her on what information was taken.
“The information should never have left the office,” he said.
In her defense, Otermat claimed that she had never copied, typed, written or photographed any confidential information and had never asked for backup documentation on employee related checks. She admitted taking one photo, but said it was of the backup documents associated with a PG&E bill. “That was the one and only photo I took,” she claimed. She went on to say she welcomed an investigation and said the notes she took that day were regarding other things.
Otermat said she did not respond to Wright’s e-mail and letter because she was very busy and was concerned about the process. She thought the letter should have come from the board and not Wright.
She said there were two employees in the room and a summer hire when she came in to sign the checks and it was a quick in-and-out trip. She claimed the problem was due to a lack of policies and procedures and said she needed time to respond to Wright’s letter.
She also claimed that Wright never responded to e-mails sent to him asking for copies of each employee complaint. However, Wright countered by saying he had responded.
Otermat went on to say that she thought the matter should have been investigated before being made public. She claimed letters regarding the matter had been posted at the Post Office.
“It’s impossible to unring the bell,” she said, “and restoring my reputation will be difficult at best.
“I encourage a fact-finding investigation and process,” she said. She went on to claim that certain employees, White, and Wright had made false allegations about the incident. “What happens to them?” she asked.
Otermat said that topics she planned to raise at the September board meeting were the reason behind holding the meeting Tuesday night.
“What’s the motivation of the employees, general manager, and counsel?” she asked.
Griffiths responded by saying that the board couldn’t do an investigation because it lacks police powers. “But we do have an obligation to take actions on these allegations.”
Wright then stated that all the allegations against Otermat were true. “You were transcribing information and taking phone photos.”
Employees who witnessed Otermat’s actions were invited to speak at the meeting.
Dolores Barron, who handles payroll for the district, said there was no check to PG&E for Otermat to sign on Aug. 8. The only checks were for payroll deductions for employees.
In a prepared statement she said, “I noticed that she was inputting personal information from the backup detail into her laptop. As I watched her sign checks, she did not seem interested in the AFLAC invoice, but after she signed a couple of checks I noticed that she had activated her phone and took a picture … She then opened up her laptop and started typing a list of possibly the names of employees in the union from the spreadsheet which also has the employees’ Social Security numbers and then proceeded to type in the figures on the PERS remittance form into her computer.”
Kayla Hand, the summer hire, said Otermat was at the office for 30 to 45 minutes. “In that period of time she was taking pictures of and writing down the confidential (information) of the business and its employees.” At the podium, Hand asked, “Why do you need a camera to sign checks?”
Stephanie Beck, another employee, also submitted a written complaint. She worried that the information on Otermat’s laptop and phone would become public. “From my years in banking, I know how devastating it can be if someone gets hold of sensitive information like Social Security numbers financially and personally.”
In response to the allegations, some members of the public spoke in Otermat’s defense. Dale Miller said the process “was out of whack. We have employees who don’t like Kathy and that needs to be taken into consideration. Why is this one incident blown out of proportion? Employees are looking for other issues because the recall didn’t go through. Are you going to put a process together so this doesn’t happen again?”
In response to the question of why wasn’t the issue handled in closed session, Wright said the issue couldn’t be handled there because of the Brown Act and because Otermat is a board member and not an employee of the district.
Other members of the audience suggested that either the county District Attorney or the Grand Jury look into what happened.
Otermat then claimed that White had created a “hostile environment” for her which drew a round of laughter from the audience.
Mike Cooper, who said he had formerly served as the treasurer for the district, said the incident should have been turned over to a professional investigator, but that too much time had since elapsed for that to happen now. “I can’t think of a reason to photograph information,” he said. “So it’s being taken for some other reason.”
White then produced a copy of the canceled check to PG&E that Otermat said she had taken a picture of on Aug. 8. White noted that the back of the check showed that it had cleared the bank on July 30. So not only was the photo that Otermat submitted at the board meeting not the one taken on Aug. 8, but it was evidence of her previously taking at least one other photo of backup documentation on checks she had signed.
Director Norm Krizl noted that Otermat’s actions put employee’s financial lives in jeopardy and the board was acting to protect them. He said it was a matter of trust and Otermat had broken trust. “I don’t trust you to sign these checks,” he said. “You refused to sign Bill (Wright’s) check. You and your friends are trying to turn you into a victim, but as far as the employees are concerned, you have stolen their identity and spit on them. This is not a way to gain trust or respect.”
In response Otermat claimed that she had a lot of support from the community and a hostile environment had resulted from the failed recall. Claiming to have been set up, she said the investigation was not done properly and she had not responded to Wright’s letter because she had done nothing wrong.
The meeting concluded with the board voting 3-2, with Otermat and Director Bonnie McLane voting no, to remove Otermat from her position as treasurer. A new person will be selected at the board’s next regular meeting on Sept. 11.
The board also voted unanimously to pay for Lifelock or a similar program for all affected employees for one year. Krizl had originally suggested that Otermat pay for the program but the board voted for the district to pick up the cost.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or email@example.com. Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.