Third US Gov't Worker Pleads to Passport Snooping

A third U.S. State Department employee has pleaded guilty to illegally accessing dozens of confidential passport application files, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

Gerald Lueders, 65, of Woodbridge, Virginia, pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to a one-count criminal information charging him with unauthorized computer access.

Lueders, in his guilty plea, acknowledged that between July 2005 and February 2008, he logged into the State Department's Passport Information Electronic Records System (PIERS) database and viewed passport applications of more than 50 celebrities, actors, politicians, musicians, athletes, members of the media and other people.

Lueders admitted that he had no official government reason to access and view these passport applications, but that his sole purpose was "idle curiosity," the DOJ said.

Lueders was among a group of about five State Department employees or contractors who were targeted for prosecution after March news reports of employees there accessing the electronic passport files of three presidential candidates, Senators John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The inspector general's office at the State Department later found that there had been widespread breaches of PIERS.

The inspector general's office looked at the passport files of 150 politicians, entertainers and athletes, and found that 127 of those passports had been accessed at least once between September 2002 and March 2008. Those passport files were accessed 4,148 times during that time frame and one person's passport was searched 356 times by 77 users.

Those reports prompted members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to call for prosecutions of the passport snoopers.

Lueders served as a foreign service officer at the State Department from June 1974 to September 2001. From late 2005 to February 2008, he worked as a watch officer within the Office of Consular Affairs. He had access to PIERS, which contains all passport applications going back to 1994. Those applications contain an applicant's date and place of birth, current address, emergency contact information and other personal data.

Those files are protected by the Privacy Act of 1974, and access by State Department employees is strictly limited to official government duties, the DOJ said.

Lueders is the third current or former State Department employee to plead guilty in this continuing investigation.

In September, Lawrence Yontz, a former foreign service officer and intelligence analyst, pleaded guilty to unlawfully accessing hundreds of confidential passport files. Yontz was sentenced on Dec. 19 to 12 months of probation and ordered to perform 50 hours of community service. On Jan. 14, Dwayne Cross, a former administrative assistant and contract specialist, pleaded guilty to unlawfully accessing hundreds of confidential passport files. Cross' sentencing is scheduled for March 23, and Lueders' sentencing is scheduled for March 26.

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