Discovery of hundreds of cameras in Anne Arundel buildings triggers fears of spying

March 6, 2013

With salacious tales of former county executive John Leopold’s parking-lot trysts still fresh in their minds, Anne Arundel residents this week braced for another round of T.M.I. after the discovery of hundreds of surveillance cameras at county facilities that were said to be under Leopold’s control. The discovery of the cameras sent county leaders into a state of high alert — and imaginations racing.

“Cameras in and of themselves are not a problem,” Leopold’s replacement, Laura Neuman (R), said in a statement Tuesday announcing an investigation. “They must, however, be utilized appropriately.”

The furor began last week, shortly after Neuman arrived at the Arundel Center in Annapolis for her first full day on the job.

There she encountered William Hyers, a retired police officer, who helped her with her building access card. Hyers also showed her his office, where he monitors feeds from hundreds of cameras at county facilities, including the circuit court, detention centers and County Council offices.

“She really didn’t have any questions,” recalled Hyers, who spent 33 years with the county police before becoming a contract employee in 2007.

Neuman recalled events a little differently.

“I personally observed unusual activity that called for further review, and quickly learned of hundreds of surveillance cameras being placed in and around County buildings with little or no oversight,” she said in a statement. “It was incumbent upon us to exercise due diligence in determining the purpose of these cameras in order to protect our employees and the public.”

A few hours after meeting Neuman, Hyers was at his desk when a personnel official appeared and relieved him of his job on the spot. The locks on his office door were changed, and the computer monitors, hard drives and files were secured.

He learned later that police had told Neuman that most of the cameras were not under their purview. They also said that he reported directly and solely to Leopold, who was convicted of misconduct in January for using county employees to drain his catheter bag and perform other personal and political chores.

“The question is: Why was this individual the only one watching them, and why was he reporting only to the county executive and not to the police?” County Council Chairman Jerry Walker (R-Gambrills) said Wednesday. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

But Hyers said he always reported to someone in the police department, not to Leopold, and produced monthly reports of his activities.

From now on, county police will be in charge of the cameras, department spokesman Justin Mulcahy said.

Neuman said Tuesday that the cameras had been paid for with Department of Homeland Security grants and that after a sweep of the county executive and County Council offices, police had assured her “no improper monitoring” was taking place.

By then, however, the county was abuzz with speculation, including rumors of hidden listening devices, fueled in part by actions by Leopold that reminded some of the Watergate scandal. At his trial, a former member of his security detail testified that Leopold had ordered him to compile dossiers on political rivals. The dossiers are the subject of a lawsuit led by the ACLU of Maryland.

Hyers served briefly on Leopold’s security detail, which a judge found Leopold guilty of improperly using to post, monitor and take down campaign posters. Was Hyers some sort of rogue operator spying for Leopold, people wondered?

Despite such questions, the council is unlikely to hold hearings on the matter, Walker said. Instead, it will wait for the results of a state police investigation.

Janet Owens, Leopold’s predecessor, and former police chief Tom Shanahan said they also find the camera controversy alarming, but for different reasons.

Neuman and the news media have the wrong idea, they said. And they would know, because the cameras were installed at their behest. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a string of thefts from county buildings, Owens and Shanahan said they saw cameras as an inexpensive way to beef up security.

It took years to build the network, they said. Hyers said he began working on the program in 2003, while he was part of the police intelligence unit. He became expert at installing the cameras and troubleshooting glitches. He supplied footage to aid police investigations. The thefts at county buildings, he said, virtually stopped. After he retired, he stayed on as a contractor to maintain the cameras.

Leopold “never asked me to run anything,” Hyers said.

Owens said the affair boils down to a case of institutional amnesia. There was simply no one around who knew about the cameras who could properly brief Neuman. Key players involved in the creation of the surveillance program have left the government or retired, she said. And the new police chief, Larry W. Tolliver, assumed the helm of the department after 14 years in retirement.

An information vacuum, coupled with Leopold’s legacy, made the camera program “sound awful, like it was some paranoid plot,” she said. “It’s much ado about nothing.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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