SEC Workers Investigated for Porn-Surfing

Tuesday, 02 Feb 2010 08:04 AM

By Jim McElhatton

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The work computer of one regional supervisor for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission showed more than 1,800 attempts to look up pornography in a 17-day span: "It was kind of distraction per se," he later told investigators.

But he wasn't alone. More than two dozen SEC employees and contractors over roughly the past two years have faced internal investigations after they were caught viewing pornography on their government computers, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and other public documents.

The activities of porn-surfing SEC workers, a small fraction of the overall work force, have been serious enough to warrant a mention in each of the past four semiannual reports sent to Congress by the SEC's office of inspector general.

In response to the open records request by The Washington Times, the inspector general's office provided more than 150 pages of records and transcripts on the investigations, but declined to identify the employees involved. The office noted that disclosure of the employees' names "could conceivably subject them to harassment and annoyance in the conduct of their official duties and private lives."

Allan Bachman, education manager for the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, said such problems are hardly unique to the SEC. He also said the findings are troubling aside from "the egregious nature of what they're doing."

"They're simply just stealing time," he said. "They're getting paid to do something that they're not supposed to be doing."

SEC officials said the inspector general's investigations began as a result of the agency's "sophisticated surveillance and filtering system" aimed at uncovering abuse of government computer resources.

"Any level of misuse of government resources for inappropriate purposes is a matter of serious concern, which is why the SEC provides regular and comprehensive training on the proper use of the Internet," SEC spokesman John Nester said.

"Indeed, each of the cases investigated … was detected by our surveillance systems and referred to the inspector general for investigation," Mr. Nester said.

In the case of the regional supervisor, the inspector general found that during a 17-day period, he received about 1,880 "access denials," wherein the computer system blocked his attempts to view Web sites that were deemed pornographic.

The supervisor later told an IG investigator that despite the blocked attempts, he still had been looking at pornography at work up to twice a day and it had "probably occurred for a long time."

SEC records also provide insight into how some employees were able to bypass the Internet filters inside the SEC that were supposed to keep pornography off government computers.

One worker said the computer system blocked him from visiting some Web sites but that he was able to look up blogs containing pornographic images.

"I would click on it and it went to a blog and it wasn't blocked," he told investigators. "And that's how it started."

While the inspector general recommended disciplinary action up to and including dismissal, the SEC ultimately gave the employee a reprimand instead, records show.

Mr. Nester declined to discuss individual disciplinary decisions, saying supervisors examine the situations on a case-by-case basis and that sanctions generally range from counseling to dismissal.

He said disciplinary action isn't based on the number of "access denials" alone. He said denials are just one of several indicators of abuse and don't always reflect the number of times an individual seeks to view inappropriate Web sites at work.

"In fact, a single click onto one Web site that itself may not be blocked can trigger up to dozens of 'access denial' hits, one for each banner or ad on the Web page that might be blocked by our software, even if the individual has not clicked on to any of the banners or ads on that page," Mr. Nester said.

Still, fraud specialist Nicole Bocra, a former special investigator for the National Association of Securities Dealers who owns and operates a private investigative firm in Virginia, said even the most sophisticated Internet filters won't work all the time.

"People are always going to find a way around it," she said.

Aside from the obvious lost productivity, companies also have an incentive to block employees from perusing such sites because of the risk of potential computer viruses, she said.

One employee caught snooping estimated that he had been spending part of his workday looking up pornography for more than a year, though he added that he tried not to let it affect his work.

"I justified it because I would work late and I rarely would put in for any kind of comp time or anything like that," he said.

In another case, investigators found that an SEC headquarters enforcement employee had received 406 access request denials for pornographic sites from February to April last year. He was suspended for three days, records show.

Managers proposed a one-day suspension in another case involving a regional office branch chief who had received 271 access denials for pornographic sites during work hours.

Other employees resigned before being formally disciplined. One was a worker who told investigators he'd looked up pornography at work about twice a week for up to two years.

It's unclear what, if any, post-employment benefits that employee or other SEC workers caught looking up pornography at work are entitled to receive after retirement.

"We are not aware of any law that permits us in these circumstances to reduce the benefits of an employee who resigned in lieu of termination," Mr. Nester said.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC

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