Yours for the Hacking

The county’s court system has spent $36 million on a revolutionary new database, but when programmers warned it was vulnerable, they’re the ones who got deleted

Consultant Tom McGovern has had his initial six-month SPIRIT contract renewed by Ruvin ten times since mid-1999. Over the past twelve months, his work for the clerk has brought him a salary of $96,000 plus $1000 to $3000 per month in expenses. The expenses have been mostly for mileage incurred in the round-trip drive from his home in Melbourne to the Coral Gables courthouse once a week to attend meetings, and one night of lodging. (McGovern declined to speak with New Times.)

Ruvin says both consultants are highly qualified and argues there are good reasons for using private contractors as project managers. "The advantage you have with a contract employee is that you don't have to pay benefits and you don't have to concern yourself if you're going to fire them," he says. Moreover, he notes, it's been necessary to keep them on the project until a "knowledge transfer" to the county's tech department has been completed.

And who will tell Ruvin when that transfer is complete? Consultants James and McGovern. (Byron Jones and his fellow programmers maintain that the knowledge transfer was completed in 2002, about a year after they assumed responsibility for operating SPIRIT.)

Ex-SPIRIT programmers (clockwise from upper left): Johnny Hoben, Juan Galego, Masood Hussaini, Randy Feigenbaum, and Byron Jones
Ex-SPIRIT programmers (clockwise from upper left): Johnny Hoben, Juan Galego, Masood Hussaini, Randy Feigenbaum, and Byron Jones
Ex-SPIRIT programmers (clockwise from upper left): Johnny Hoben, Juan Galego, Masood Hussaini, Randy Feigenbaum, and Byron Jones
Jonathan Postal
Ex-SPIRIT programmers (clockwise from upper left): Johnny Hoben, Juan Galego, Masood Hussaini, Randy Feigenbaum, and Byron Jones

On August 27, two days after the courthouse guards detained Jones, the Executive Policy Committee held one of its semiannual meetings. Judge Slom had asked that the programmers' security complaints be placed on the agenda. Consultant McGovern summarized a July 8 meeting between administrators from the county tech department and the clerk's office regarding security. "They agreed, yeah, that there are some risks here," McGovern began, "but those risks are not catastrophic. One of the things that is probably the most important aspect of any security system you put in place is you must be able to trust the people who are doing the work. I've had probably 50 years' experience in security systems, some of them the most sensitive in the nation, and the weakest link in any security system is the people. You can put into place all kinds of procedures, you can do all kinds of things to assure security -- and we're addressing those. But if one of these trusted agents who is responsible for some of the very, very sensitive things determines they want to do harm, it is extremely difficult to prevent them."

Consultant Tom James, who earlier had characterized the database security threat as "minimal," claimed after the meeting he had programmers taking such extensive action to rectify the security problem that judges and other users would soon find SPIRIT to be much slower. "We're doing more things and making the systems work a little bit harder to make sure we can protect ourselves from programmer malfeasance," he said. "As a matter of fact, [the programmers'] lives will probably be miserable because of it."

Still, James made sure to cast the programmers themselves as the real threat: "We didn't think that, in all the priorities of things that we had to do, protecting ourselves from the people who worked for us was that important. But now we do."

In response to their reassignments, several of the whistleblowers say they are considering filing lawsuits against Tom James, Tom McGovern, and various county officials, accusing them of retaliation, harassment, and defamation.

"I didn't take them off the project," Ruvin protests. "They work for [the county tech department]. Ruben Lopez made the decisions to do whatever was done personnel-wise." Lopez, through a county spokeswoman, said the reassignments of Jones, Hoben, Galego, and others on the SPIRIT team were the result of budget cuts.

Ruvin's and Lopez's explanations don't hold up, the programmers say. No one mentioned budget problems when they were removed from SPIRIT. Besides, why transfer the programmers who were most experienced on the system? In a September 15 memo to her decimated staff, the new SPIRIT team supervisor confirmed the severity of the brain drain and requested that any "knowledge gaps" be brought to her attention immediately.

The whistleblowers, meanwhile, have taken their concerns about SPIRIT's consultants and contracts to Miami-Dade's Office of the Inspector General.

Clerk of Courts Clarified

If you live in Miami-Dade County, chances are some of your money has gone to Harvey Ruvin. Under the state constitution, each Florida county must have an elected clerk of courts, which means Ruvin enjoys a unique form of power along with his substantial responsibilities. He is the custodian of court records generated in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida, which serves Miami-Dade County. He is also custodian of records related to the work of the county commission. In addition all of the county’s banking contracts are awarded through Ruvin’s office. Most of the office’s power, however, stems from the money streaming into it.

With the help of 1300 employees and a $57 million budget, Ruvin collects tens of millions of dollars in revenues each year from parking and traffic fines, court-ordered forfeitures, and fees for marriage licenses, real estate documents, and other legal papers filed with Miami-Dade County. In 2003, for example, Ruvin's office collected $45 million from traffic cases alone; total revenues last year were about $69 million.

Until this year, those revenues went into the Miami-Dade County general fund and covered about two-thirds of Ruvin's budget. The county and state picked up the other third. A state constitutional amendment approved by voters has now changed that arrangement. Today Ruvin and all other court clerks send fines, fees, and forfeitures to the Florida Department of Financial Services. In exchange the legislature pays the operating costs of the state's court system, including State Attorneys, public defenders, and clerks' offices. Counties, however, must still maintain courthouses and construct new ones as needed.

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