Prosecutors have dropped child pornography charges against a Massachusetts state employee after an investigation determined that his government-issued laptop was poorly configured and riddled with malicious software.
Michael Fiola, former investigator with the Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents (DIA), had been facing two-and-a-half years in prison after being charged last year with possession of child pornography.
Those charges were dropped on June 10 after an investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General's office found that the state could not prove that Fiola had downloaded the images. "We could not meet our burden of reasonable doubt," said Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley.
The case shows how easy it is for someone to be charged with illegal computer activity that they may know nothing about, said Fiola's attorney, Timothy Bradl. "This type of thing could have happened to anyone with a work-issued laptop," he said.
When the DIA issued Fiola his Dell Latitude laptop in November 2006, it was so badly configured that it may well have already been hacked, said Tami Loehrs, a forensics investigator hired by Fiola's defense team. The Microsoft Systems Management Server software on the laptop was misconfigured and was not receiving critical software updates, and the laptop's Symantec antivirus software was either misconfigured or not working properly, she said.
"He was handed a ticking time bomb," she said.
State IT staff examined Fiola's laptop in March 2007 after they noticed that his Verizon broadband wireless usage was four times above normal. He was fired the same month, after the pornography was discovered.
Fiola, a former firefighter with no criminal record, was ostracized by his community after being criminally charged in August 2007, Bradl said. "His life has been destroyed," he said. "His friends ran for the hills; his family mostly ran from him."
DIA spokeswoman Linnea Walsh was quoted in the Boston Herald on Monday saying, "we stand by our decision," but when reached by IDG News Service, she declined to comment on the matter, saying only "we don't want to go there right now," before abruptly hanging up the telephone.
Since his wife, Robin, was at one point hospitalized for a stress-related illness, Fiola is now facing health insurance payments in excess of his monthly mortgage. But he is unlikely to take his old job back, even if the DIA were to offer it, Bradl said. "I would think that theoretically he'd be entitled to his job back with back-pay, however he would never want to go back to work with such buffoons," he said.
Because of the heinous nature of child pornography, prosecutors and investigators often rush to conclusions while investigating this type of crime, Loehrs said. "Because the content is so disturbing, everybody just loses all sense of reality."
Take the case of Matt Bandy, who was 16 when police raided his house and charged him with possession of child pornography. The charges could have resulted in a 90-year jail sentence. Bandy eventually pleaded guilty to lesser charges, but computer experts believe that he may have been the victim of a worm that turned his PC into a "zombie computer" that was used by others to store the child pornography.
According to Wark, an initial state attorney general investigation of Fiola's laptop concluded that he was likely responsible for downloading the pornography, while a second examination, conducted after Loehrs reported her findings, reached the opposite conclusion.