Are City buildings under improper surveillance?
By Rachel Madison & Shelly Wilkison
A discussion about the need to hire an IT company for the City of Liberty Hill, which employed a full-time IT director until his resignation Aug. 29, led to the recent public revelation that City offices and employees may have been under improper surveillance for an unknown period of time.
City Administrator Lacie Hale asked Council Aug. 25 to ratify an agreement she made with UniVista, an Austin-based IT company, to provide support to City IT Director Randy Hodges. When asked whether Hodges was still working for the City, Hale said, “There’s not been a clear demonstration of professional behavior from our IT director, so with that, I made the decision to bring UniVista on board because I wanted to secure IT operations for the City of Liberty Hill.”
At that time, Hale said that Hodges was still employed by the City and was working alongside UniVista.
“Our IT department needs support,” she said in the meeting. “I executed this agreement to get their services here immediately. This will be a long-term solution for the city. I made the decision; this item is to ratify the decision.”
Council member Chris Pezold asked Larry Whelan, president of UniVista, if his company “could do a sweep for bugs and surveillance that were not appropriate or possibly are inappropriate?”
Whelan responded that his company does not provide those services.
“So we think we have bugs?” asked Council member Kathy Canady.
“I’m pretty sure we have bugs, based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve encountered, yes,” Pezold replied.
UniVista does not offer surveillance or phone services, but the company does partner with Pflugerville-based SCTi. An agreement between SCTi and the City has not been executed.
“There are still a few pieces we need to find support for, like surveillance and audio-visual support,” Hale said. “They are not supported by UniVista.”
Hale added that she has a vendor for surveillance, but she still needs to execute that agreement, and that she’s looking for the right vendor to support audio-visual services.
Council member Tony DeYoung then asked, “How is the safety and security of our networks in the IT department?”
Whelan said Hodges had been out of the office due to illness for nearly a week, and because of that did not have all the information needed to get into the entire network, but based on what he had seen, several desktop computers at City Hall needed to be secured better. He said not all the computers on the City’s network are joined to the right domain, meaning that “some machines basically can do whatever they want.”
“One of the things we need to do is get everything on the [City’s] domain so we can apply security rules across the board,” he added.
During a previous discussion regarding whether city council should play a role in the hiring process for all City employees, Council member Angela Jones said, “The behavior of some of the staff we have right now is unprofessional, it’s not right and it’s concerning. Some of the things I’ve found out are so concerning to me and made me sick to my stomach.”
“We have employees that behave like adolescents in the workplace,” she later added. “I cannot believe some of the stories I’ve heard.”
Jones asked if Whelan had found anything the Council should be alarmed about. He said not yet, but that he was still waiting on a few more passwords from Hodges so his team could finish their assessment, particularly in the police and public works departments. The Council ultimately ratified Hale’s execution of the contract, but not without leaving several unanswered questions for the public regarding improper surveillance of City employees and the nature of Hodges’ questionable behavior.
While Hale told The Independent on Sept. 3 that Hodges had resigned, after the Council meeting on Aug. 25 she said Hodges needed more support.
“We are growing and wanted an opportunity to support Randy being that he is the only IT employee for the City. We also wanted to create an additional layer of redundancy being that he is the only IT employee,” she said.
“Myself and others have felt that because of things that have been said and what we’ve seen, we feel that there were things bugged under Rick Hall,” Pezold told the Council Aug. 25. “That’s my belief. I’m not sure until we get a sweep, but there have been a few coincidences that I don’t see a way of looking at it without thinking there are some listening devices in [City Hall].”
Jones said she personally hasn’t had any current or former staff come to her and say they felt they were being watched or listened to.
“I do not know if that’s true,” she said. “I don’t have strong evidence that it is true. But we will be doing an audit of our technology, sound system and cameras, and finding out what we do and don’t have. Right now we don’t fully know.”
She added that the current city council also doesn’t know exactly what types of security equipment, like cameras, have been installed at City Hall.
“We will find out what equipment has been installed,” she said. “I have not seen a document that has the full extent of all the devices and cameras that are installed in our facilities, and we need to know that.”
When asked by The Independent if City Hall offices were equipped with listening devices, Hale said, “no comment.” She also did not respond to followup questions regarding claims by previous employees of her knowledge or involvement.
Former employees, who were terminated by former Mayor Rick Hall in 2020, told The Independent that they observed Hodges installing surveillance equipment throughout City Hall, and employees at that time suspected that they were being observed. However, they say the Council never approved the purchase of the equipment.
Records obtained by The Independent in April through an Open Records Request submitted more than a year earlier — Feb. 19, 2020 — showed more than $50,000 was spent on indoor and outdoor surveillance cameras and equipment, locks and key cards, alarms and monitoring. (See the documents provided by the City) The newspaper filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office after the City’s failure to respond to the open records request during the allowable time by law. The City then requested an exception to keep from providing the documents, but when the Attorney General’s Office directed the City to provide an explanation as to why the exception should be granted, there was no response from the City, which in turn resulted in an order from the AG to provide the information to the newspaper. That order was ignored until April — five months after Hall’s defeat in the November election.
“There were some laws that were implemented for municipalities about having an IT person to train everyone about security and that was Randy [Hodges’] place,” said former City Secretary Barbara Zwernemann. “[Hall] enlisted Randy to check pricing without ever giving anything to City Council. I think [Hall] told [former] mayor pro tem Liz Rundzeiher but didn’t present it to City Council or vote beforehand. All [former finance director] Becky [Wilkins] would say is ‘it’s in the budget’ when somebody would say, ‘Isn’t this costing a lot of money and where is this money coming from?’”
Sally McFeron, former Director of Planning, said Hall, with help from Wilkins, was “constantly nickel and diming things,” which is how she believed he kept much of the surveillance equipment purchases from needing City Council approval.
“It was never a total bid for something so that he didn’t have to go to City Council,” she said. “They kept things right underneath the minimums, so he just kept rolling.”
Zwernemann, said in late 2019 through early 2020, Hall started talking about the need for security at City Hall. She said Hall briefly announced at a council meeting, that security equipment had been purchased. She recalled employees joking about “who or what he was afraid of.” When the equipment arrived, it was all turned over to Hodges for installation, she said, adding that Hall told her surveillance equipment was being installed in every city building and that he, Hodges, and former Emergency Management Coordinator Casey Cobb would be the only people with the capability to surveil buildings at any time and from any location. Zwernemann said that ultimately, the surveillance equipment was placed on Hale’s computer as well.
“The surveillance app was put on their computers and mobile phones,” she said, referring to Hodges and Hall.
Zwernemann remembered one morning at City Hall as employees were arriving for work, Hall and Hodges were standing at Hodges’ computer laughing about the employees coming into the building, who didn’t know they were being observed.
Another time, Zwernemann heard Hodges tell a small group of employees, “I can watch y’all from my house,” she said.
“He thought it was funny,” Zwernemann said. “I remember because it sounded creepy at the time.”
She said Hall used his computer to view staff at different locations during work hours. Zwernemann said she knows this because he mentioned it to her at least once that he was watching the police department while they were working. Zwernemann said on another occasion, he was watching former Chief Maverick Campbell’s office while Campbell’s wife and two of the children were visiting, and made a comment to her that “they had been there all day”.
In January, The Independent was provided with a screenshot of a photo of one of its reporters taken during a council meeting in August 2020. The photo was taken from a camera positioned directly above the reporter’s assigned seat in what appeared to be an attempt to monitor him during the public meetings. At the time, the City’s attorney confirmed that Hodges had been directed by Hall to point the camera to the reporter. (Read the story)
Zwernemann said she never had proof, but there were other employees who also felt audio capabilities were installed in City Hall in addition to cameras. They felt like Hall would listen in on their conversations.
Sally McFeron, former Director of Planning who was terminated in July 2020, said Hale was aware of the surveillance equipment, and the purchases were never taken to Council for approval.
“She (Hale) definitely knew and definitely did it, and they never took it to City Council for any type of approval,” McFeron said. “Rick Hall could also access the cameras on his phone. I remember telling him that was pretty creepy.”
At that time, there were many things going on for McFeron personally that she never understood how other city employees found out about.
“It could have been the conference rooms were bugged,” she said.
McFeron said the Employee Handbook was changed just before she was fired, but before that, the Handbook did not contain language stating employees would be observed or surveilled.
“There was never an announcement to the staff that they could be observed,” she said. “It was just changing the handbook and handing it back out again. You would have to be paying attention. You’d have to read it. And if you were paying attention, you got fired.”
McFeron and Zwernemann said the extensive security equipment added to the second floor at City Hall was a way to restrict access to only those Hall wanted to see. Even the lobby elevator to the second floor could only be accessed with an employee code.
“It was his way of restricting entrance to areas of City Hall and it made employees curious as to what all this really meant,” said Zwernemann, who added that the restrictions were put in place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and she was not aware of any particular incident or breach that created the need for the lockdown. Zwernemann was eventually moved from the second floor to the first.
“The bad part of it was it really closed City Hall to the public and the employees that he (Hall) didn’t want,” McFeron said, adding that Canady and Rundzieher spent a great deal of time with Hall on the second floor, which was inaccessible to most.
Jones, who was elected in May, said the current council is working to bring more transparency to city government.
“The council we have right now is being really transparent with our citizens about the stuff we are finding,” Jones said. “Some of it is things I can’t talk about right now, and some of it has been brought out thus far. Moving forward I really desire to bring in leadership to create a culture in the city that is healthy for staff and citizens. This council right now is willing to look and ask questions to find out what those issues are so we can get into a situation where the City is healthy.”
Calls and messages to Mayor Liz Branigan were not returned. Hale did not respond to follow-up questions regarding surveillance and listening devices in City Hall.
The Independent contacted Hall, who refused to be interviewed by phone but agreed to respond to questions by email. The newspaper’s questions were sent by email on Aug. 30, but Hall did not respond.
At press time, it was not known whether the surveillance equipment remains active and monitored, nor whether Hall and Hodges retain access.