Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Laptop lies and a strange drive (Barbie napkins later)

The year was probably 2000. I was excelling professionally and in a very good situation at work at UTMB (as my previous post detailed).

Enter Matt Havard. Matt's job had something to do with the Web site. That's the best I can tell you about his role in the institution.

One day someone in the office was talking about a job that the Port of Galveston had posted in its communications department. Some people in the office were talking about the position for one reason or another.

Later that afternoon, I was in the break room, probably getting a cup of that fantastic Good Morning America we'd cook up in there.

Matt enters the break room. I passed him on the way back to my desk.

"Hey, John," he said.

"Yes."

"You're going to take that job over at the port, aren't you?" he said, his tone suggesting that this was a statement of fact and not a question.

"No," I said. "I wouldn't leave UTMB. I love it here."

And I was doing extremely well there at the time. Matt knew it. Why would he even suggest that I consider leaving?

There was a pause. He took a deep breath, and exhaled loud and slow. "OK," he said, his tone again suggesting he didn't like my response. He walked off, back to his desk.

I only share that conversation because it perfectly illustrates how Matt generally acted toward me.

Some time later, it came as a surprise when I received an email from Matt out of the blue. The email explained that there was an extra laptop computer available in the office, and it wasn't being used. He said I should feel free to use it if I wanted.

The whole offer struck me as odd, actually, because if you had asked me to identify the person in that office least likely to offer me a perk or do something nice for me, this would have been the guy. I should point out that most of the people in that office were good people I enjoyed working with very much.

I took Matt up on his offer. I grabbed the laptop from his cubicle.

And I took the laptop home. It was very convenient having it, and I used it often to work on articles or other projects after work hours.

I also used it for the Internet. A few evenings, while online, I surfed off into some areas I shouldn't have while on the search engine Yahoo.

Yahoo has a section called "Groups". Folks interested in common hobbies or interests can congregate and post messages, links to Web sites, photos, etc.

The vast, vast majority of the areas are OK, but unfortunately I got off into some areas that would definitely be classified as adult material.

Hopefully Yahoo has cleaned these areas up, but back in those days there were people posting all sorts of stuff.

Now, let me put a pause on this blog post to say that it was wrong for me to do this. I wasn't serving God wholeheartedly at the time. It was sin. Not only was the stuff smut, but it was also the misuse of a university computer.

I have long since repented of all this stuff and got it out of my life. But I can't tell this story without letting you know about that.

Matt, however, suddenly seemed very interested in this computer that "wasn't being used." He would ask me for the computer for an evening, and then give it back to me the next morning.

I would use it for a night or two, and then he would ask me for it again for a night and bring it back to me in the morning (although he had his own laptop).

I never suspected he was doing something strange until one day he said to me, "Hey, John, I need to see that laptop...one last time."

The tone in his voice during "one last time" indicated to me that something was going on. This guy had apparently decided he was the UTMB computer police, and he was monitoring my computer use.

Since he was not in my chain of command, and what I did on that computer really fell squarely into the category of none of his business, I decided to talk it over with some folks with whom it was their business. My boss and his.

I visited Chris Comer's office (director of communications), and shared that I had been using the laptop and I wanted to let her know that I had visited some areas in Yahoo I shouldn't have. I also shared that I felt Matt had been monitoring my computer usage.

Chris called Pep Valdes, associate director of Internet communications and Matt's boss, into the office with us. After I went back over the story I just told you, the basic message I got was "thank you for your honesty, and please don't do it again."

The meeting turned light-hearted as Pep shared his thoughts on what would happen if every computer on campus was scanned for misuse.

I left the office feeling that my mistake was not only forgiven, it was probably not rare on campus.

I went back to my desk and got back to work. Everything returned to normal temporarily.

Within a couple days, this situation turned extremely bizarre.

Pep walked up behind me at my desk one afternoon. Matt was with him.

"John, can you come with us?" Pep asked.

I agreed and followed them to our meeting...out to the parking lot. And into Pep's car.

I don't remember Matt saying much of anything as we drove eastward on Seawall out toward East Beach.

Whatever Pep and Matt had to say to me, apparently couldn't have been said in the office. I don't remember much of the conversation, but I do remember that at some point during the drive, I realized this had something to do with the laptop computer.

We got out of the car, and Pep asked me a few general questions about the laptop. Though I can't remember many specific questions he asked me, I do remember Pep using the term "your crime" at least once.

The problem was, I had committed no crime. And I think they knew it.

Based on this conversation and comments I would encounter later, what someone apparently wanted to pin on me, was that there were children being exploited or abused or something like that on the laptop.

It's pure, unadulterated, horse manure.

Before we got back in the car to return to the office, Pep said, "John, this can be the beginning of the road for you, or this can be the end of the road for you."

Do you remember our reoccurring theme I wanted you to look out for? Please re-read my last post if you don't.

I've gone over that statement hundreds of times over the years in my mind, and I can't find any other explanation than it was a threat of some sort. If it wasn't, Pep, I'm sorry. But maybe you could explain it to me sometime.

By the way, in case you were wondering, this is the beginning of the road for me.

Here's the question that our responsible journalist friends should be asking at this point of our story:

If you truly suspected someone was doing something illegal on a state computer (or had evidence to confirm it), why didn't this meeting occur at the Galveston Police Department or the local office of the FBI, instead of East Beach?

Weird. And it gets more weird.

This series of incidents I just described set the tone for my office life the remainder of my time at UTMB. A bald-faced lie that was held over my head as fact (but never investigated by police for some reason).

In our next post, I'll discuss further strange statements and behavior, as well as share an email from Matt Havard's wife, another office employee, that didn't seem like she felt I was a disgusting child-molesting criminal. In fact, she described me as "wonderful."

Ask yourself this question: If you were violating someone's privacy at work by looking at their computer usage, and supposedly uncovered evidence they were doing something that disgusting and illegal, wouldn't you at least tell your wife, an associate director in the office?

Stay tuned.

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