Mystery E-mails criticize purchase
July 23, 2001
The e-mails were sent May 29 and May 30 under the address "email@example.com." But at a July 12 Rock Hall mayor and council meeting, Willis announced the CrossLink account used to send the messages was traced to Kentronics, a Chestertown computer business owned by County Commissioner Larry Beck.
Willis adamantly denies sending the messages and Beck insists he had no knowledge of them before a reporter alerted him to Willis' statement last week.
"I really wish Bob had spoken to me before he made that announcement at a public meeting," said Beck on Friday, July 13. "It hurts me personally and could be harmful to my business reputation. I did not send those e-mails and I have no clue as to how this happened," he insisted.
Plans to purchase Pelorus Marina to create a county park with boat slips on the 2.6-acre site were announced by county commissioners at their July 3 meeting. Commissioners Ron Fithian, Beck and Michael Newnam have all signed the letter of intent to buy the facility.
Announcing he wished to "clear the air," Willis' announcement about the origin of the e-mails was made following a presentation by Fithian and Newnam detailing the Pelorus purchase at the July 12 meeting. Beck did not attend the meeting.
"Each of these e-mails asked the governor to delay or postpone the process of this marina purchase," Willis explained."What disturbs me is the address by which it was sent appears to have my name on it, except the middle initial is incorrect. After some discussion and research, I looked into this e-mail address and the name of the person on the account from which this e-mail originated is Commissioner Larry Beck."
Willis said he contacted CrossLink, the internet access and networking service based in Springfield, Va., asking them to identify the source of the address, but was told they could not release such information unless the request came from a town official.
Rock Hall Chief of Police Jack Jester provided town letterhead for the request, sent July 12, and CrossLink replied the same day, listing the "rhwillis" log-in name as CrossLink re-seller Kentronics.
The first message read: "I was looking at the Maryland Board of Public Works Agenda and noticed that Kent County is on their agenda for Wednesday, May 30, 2001. Do you know anything about the county buying a marina in Rock Hall? If the county is going to purchase a business or property, shouldn't they let the citizens know before the deal is done? I know land negotiations need to be done in private but the concept should be fully discussed in public, not in the back room. Why would the county want to eliminate an ongoing business in the county and put people out of jobs when they are supposed to be encouraging economic development?" The message is signed "S. Willis."
The second e-mail, sent at 8:03 a.m. on May 30, the day Fithian met with the Public Works Board, read: "Please postpone any decision on the Kent County item for the marina purchase. There has been no PUBLIC DISCUSSION on this issue."
Willis did not name Beck as the writer of messages traced to Kentronics, but said he simply wanted to clarify that the messages to the governor had not come from him.
"The word was out all over town, all over the county, that I was against the project because of these e-mails," said Willis.
"Ron (Fithian) called me into his office before last week's meeting and asked me what I planned to say when they made the presentation, because of my sending the e-mails. I told him I hadn't sent them, and we got into a pretty heated discussion," said Willis.
"My constituents, many of whom are watermen, were very, very angry with me. I was told I'd never be elected to another office. I tried to explain, but there was my name on the top of those e-mails."
The one mistake, said Willis, was the name. He is Robert E. Willis. The e-mails were sent from "rhwillis." Also, Willis said he believes "S.Willis" refers to his mother, whose name is Mary Sue.
Willis' announcement at the July 12 meeting drew a sharp response from Newnam, who remained for the meeting after the presentation.
"Bobby, I appreciate that, because for the past month I'd been thinking in my own mind here we have a marina owner that has some concerns about purchasing this marina," he said.
"I kind of understood where you were, but at the same time I took offense because you didn't come before us and talk to us about it," Newman said. "And now it's been cleared up that the county commissioner who supposedly supported the project was also trying to postpone it, and even kill the project. So I appreciate you're coming forward with this."
Beck vehemently denies playing any role in the e-mails that were sent to Glendening's office.
"If I'm opposed to something, it's my job to question it in public, not to go behind the scenes and try to do something like that. I don't operate that way," he said.
Beck said a similar incident occurred about a year ago when someone used his Delmarva Online account to hack into computers, some as far away as Cuba. He referred to a letter sent to him from Delmarva referencing "Hacking attempts reported 8/11/2000," which stated: "It was determined that the owner of the username Kentronics was not involved in the attack."
But that did not deter Beck from pursuing the incident further. "The FBI was involved in that one, and we identified the hacker," he said.
Beck also presented a letter from CrossLink, dated July 13, reading: "Based on our conversation this morning, it is apparent that an individual with knowledge of your password accessed your organization's account using our secure web site and created three new accounts that you were not aware of, knowing full well these accounts would be traced back to you and not the individual that created them."
The two other addresses were identified as "firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. The last four digits of Kentronics' phone number are 5466. Neither e-mail addresses were used and both were deleted on May 27, the day firstname.lastname@example.org was added.
CrossLink representative Kurt Archibald said accessing an organization's account is fairly easy for anyone who is computer savvy.
"They can just go in, create an e-mail box with a name that's not being used and access the account," he explained. "It looks as if someone was bent on causing trouble for either Mr. Willis or Mr. Beck or both."
"CrossLink told me someone apparently was just experimenting with the first two addresses," said Beck.
Fithian, who also serves as Rock Hall's town manager, first learned about the e-mails from Kent County Parks and Recreation director Jeff Troester, who received copies of them from Michael Nelson, an assistant to the governor.
"Nelson asked for a response from the commissioners about these e-mails," said Fithian, who recalls discussing them with Newnam and Beck.
"This situation caused me to have a lot of friction with Bobby," said Fithian. "He's one of my bosses, so I called him in to talk to him about it, because I can't let our relationship deteriorate when we work together. I was blaming him and he absolutely denied writing the e-mails."
Newnam said he, too, remembered talking about the e-mails with both Fithian and Beck.
"Each of us received a packet with copies of the e-mails and we discussed them. Larry heard the conversations. Now the proof is on him," said Newnam.
But Beck remembers differently.
"I missed several of the meetings when we discussed Pelorus, including the one when we talked about signing the letter of intent," he said. "And there was absolutely no discussion about e-mails at any of the meetings I attended."
Fithian sees it as a "he-said-he-said" situation.
"Larry deserves a chance to clear his name. But if he doesn't, we're going to consider it as a very serious matter."
Beck worries they may never find out who is behind the e-mails or their motivation for sending them.
"It puts my reputation and Bobby's on the line," said Beck. "To be honest, it looks as if someone is trying to set both of us up."
By: COOKY McCLUNG, Special from The Kent News, Copyright © The Star Democrat 2001