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After trip to China, Miami-Dade wiped data from phones used by top county officials

Miami-Dade said it wiped the data from 13 phones temporarily issued county officials for a two-week trade mission to China and Japan in March 2018. The Miami Herald requested text messages from one of the phones, only to discover the data had been deleted. That could be a violation of state law. (Dreamstime)
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When senior officials in Miami-Dade’s government returned from an extended trade mission to China and Japan last month, the county took the unusual — and possibly illegal — step of erasing all the data from temporary phones issued for the trip.

A log by the county’s Information Technology Department lists 13 phones assigned to county commissioners, department heads and top aides who spent 11 days in China and four in Japan for a trip focused on transit and infrastructure. Next to each official’s name is the date the phone was turned in and a label indicating no data remains: “Wiped by User.”

Myriam Marquez, spokeswoman for Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the elected official who supervises the IT department and led the trade mission, described the “wiping” of the data as a mistake. It was discovered after the Miami Herald requested text messages from the county employee who organized the March 13-27 trip. Marquez said the deletions were part of an effort to protect against Chinese computer viruses that might have been embedded in the phones, but that the data should have been preserved as public records.

“It’s important that no matter where we travel, and how sensitive those places are, we need to dump that information into a safe place first, and then we can destroy the phones,” Marquez said. “We are working on establishing that routine to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Barbara Petersen, director of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, said destroying county correspondence on a cellphone can be a violation of state rules that protect government records — both paper ones and electronic.

“That they wiped the phones, and all of the information on those phones, is extremely troubling,” she said. “Just to wipe the phones clean — wiping everything — could very well be a violation of the public-records law.”

The phones were supposed to be used as temporary replacements for the officials’ regular county-issued cellphones while the delegation visited the communist dictatorship.

That makes the temporary phones potentially valuable repositories of electronic correspondence as Gimenez, four county commissioners and some of Miami-Dade’s most powerful agency directors explored possible port, sewer and transit deals with Chinese and Japanese companies. Joining the government officials was a paying delegation of lobbyists, developers and county vendors on an extended trip far from public scrutiny and media presence.

The county says it erased the data as a way to protect Miami-Dade systems against “Zero Day” computer viruses picked up in China.

“In accordance with recommendations made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding cellular devices to be used in specific international locations, the equivalent of burner cellular phones were issued,” Angel Petisco, head of IT for Miami-Dade, wrote in an email after the Herald requested some text messages from the trip. “Upon return, each device was cleansed to ensure that no Zero Day Vulnerability was contained.”

“Zero Day Vulnerability” refers to viruses that are unknown to the IT industry set up to defend computer systems from hacks, infiltration and shutdowns from digital sabotage. Even so, the log says some phones weren’t wiped. And at least one was wiped only after photos from the trip were transferred using Apple’s “Air Drop” service over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Gimenez and others also continued using their regular county phones in China.

On April 2, the Herald requested some text messages sent and received by Manny Gonzalez, director of the county’s trade office, while on the Asia trip. The request identified the number of the temporary phone he had identified in email messages as the number he was using during the trade mission.

Ten days later, on April 12, Tere Florin, a spokeswoman for the department where Gonzalez works, Regulatory and Economic Resources, said a reporter could come to County Hall the following morning to review Gonzalez’s phone from China and read any text messages relevant to the request.

But later that day, Florin and Marquez called to say the IT executive assigned to the mayor’s office, Jose Marticorena, told them the phone had been deleted as part of the security precautions taken after the China trip.

“When I got it, it was wiped,” Marticorena said in an interview Tuesday. He said he did not know who had deleted Gonzalez’s data, but assumed it was someone else in the IT department. The county apparently has no records showing who had done the wiping. While the log says “Wiped by User” next to the county official’s name assigned the phone, several participants, including MIA director Lester Sola and Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, said they turned over their devices to IT with the data intact.

“There was no need for me to erase it,” said Commissioner Audrey Edmonson. “I turned it in. If it was erased, I didn’t do it.”

The county’s log of the wiped phones showed Gonzalez’s phone was actually turned in on April 13, one day after the mayor’s office said the device had its data deleted. Just two days earlier, in an email exchange with Florin, the agency spokeswoman, Gonzalez sounded ready to have his temporary Asia phone inspected.

“I do not recall all my texts but my China phone, as well as my current county phone are available for review,” Gonzalez wrote April 11 after Florin had asked for help from Gonzalez in fulfilling the records request.

In an interview Tuesday, Gonzalez said he surrendered his phone to IT with the data intact but could not remember when. Who deleted it? “I don’t know,” he said. “I turned in my phone.”

The wiped phones add an extra layer of intrigue to a trip that had already been marked by a trickle of incomplete or confusing information about the itinerary and participants. The county did not list a March 16 Hong Kong reception held by Genting on one of its cruise ships for Gimenez, commissioners and county department heads who were on the first leg of the trip, before the private-sector delegation joined the group on March 17.

Also there in Hong Kong were two registered lobbyists who were central to the mayor’s 2016 reelection effort: campaign manager Jesse Manzano-Plaza and finance chairman Ralph Garcia-Toledo.

Both have contracts with Genting, the Malaysian casino company building a hotel over a county bus stop in downtown Miami. The two were the only private-sector executives invited to join the mayor and county officials to ride a demo of a “trackless train” being tested by CRRC, a government-owned company in China that already holds transit contracts throughout the United States. Their names were omitted from a list of participants released by the mayor’s office for the March 15 event. The list was corrected after inquiries from the Herald.

Though he said seeing the “trackless train” in person was a letdown, Gimenez had previously pitched the CRRC vehicle as a promising and far more affordable alternative to expanding Metrorail.

Executives from CRRC’s Boston division had registered to lobby in Miami-Dade last summer and met with Gimenez in his County Hall office. But county officials and Genting representatives said it was the casino company that actually took the lead in having the mayor see the trackless train himself — even though Gonzalez said he worked directly with CRRC to arrange other visits with the company during the rest of the China trip.

“Genting had known the mayor was interested” in the trackless train factory, Gonzalez said. “They facilitated it.”

Gonzalez said the Asia trade mission was the first time he could remember being issued a temporary phone for an overseas trip. Marticorena agreed that the temporary phones were a first — as were the post-trip deletions of data.

“We’ve done other trips in the past,” he said. “And we’ve never been in this situation.”

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© 2018 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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