Third State Department snooper sentenced

Gerald Lueders, two others improperly accessed passport records of Obama, others

A former employee of the U.S. Department of State who pleaded guilty to improperly accessing electronic passport records belonging to more than 50 high-profile individuals was sentenced today to one year of probation.

Gerald Lueders, 65, of Woodbridge, Va., who worked as a foreign service officer at the State Department and later as a recruitment coordinator for the agency, was also ordered by U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Kay in Washington D.C. to pay a $5,000 fine.

In January, Lueders admitted that between July 2005 and Feb. 2008 he had logged onto the State Department's Passport Information Electronic Records System (PIERS) database and viewed passport applications of several celebrities, athletes, media personnel, family members and others out of "idle curiosity."

Leuders is the third department employee to be sentenced for snooping on the passport records of dozens of high-profile individuals including then-Senator Barack Obama and others.

Lawrence Yontz, also a former foreign service officer and intelligence analyst, pleaded guilty to illegally accessing more than 200 passport records last September, and was sentenced in December to one year probation and 50 hours of community service.

In March of this year, Dwayne Cross, a former administrative assistant and contract specialist at the department, was sentenced to 12 months of probation and 100 hours of community service after pleading guilty to improperly accessing about 150 electronic passport records. The snooping case came to light in March 2008, when the State Department disclosed that three contract employees had accessed passport records belonging to certain individuals without any valid reason for doing so.

At that time, the State Department had disclosed that the individuals whose identities had been improperly accessed included Senators Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton.

The department had described the individuals who accessed their records as being motivated by "imprudent curiosity." Though their illegal access was repeatedly flagged by an in-house computer system designed to catch such violations, supervisors downplayed the alerts. Two contract workers were later fired, while the third worker was disciplined but allowed to continue to work for the department.

The incident attracted considerable attention, with Obama calling it an "outrageous" privacy violation at the time.

Passport records contain information that is submitted by an individual when filling out an application form and can include details such as date and place of birth, physical attributes, naturalization details, family status and occupation and details from background checks.

The PIERS database in which the data is stored is a classified system with access limited strictly to government duties.

The State Department snooping incident is not the only example of insiders abusing their rights. Earlier this year, a Kaiser Permanente hospital near Los Angeles fired 15 employees and reprimanded eight others for improperly accessing the personal medical records of Nadya Suleman, the California woman who gave birth to octuplets in January.

In April 2008, the medical center at the University of California, Los Angeles, disclosed that as many as 165 doctors and other employees had improperly accessed the medical records of numerous celebrities, including Tom Cruise, Farah Fawcett and Britney Spears, over a period of as many as 13 years.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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