State Department Worker Gets Probation for Passport Snooping

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A former U.S. Department of State employee has been sentenced to 12 months of probation and ordered to perform 50 hours of community service for illegally accessing the computer files related to hundreds of confidential passport applications, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

Lawrence Yontz, 48, of Arlington, Virginia, pleaded guilty to one court of unauthorized computer access on Sept. 22 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the DOJ said.

Yontz 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 the agency's Passport Information Electronic Records System, or 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.

Yontz served as a foreign service officer at the State Department between September 1987 and April 1996, then returned to the agency in January 2004 for work as an intelligence officer. Yontz had access to official databases, including PIERS, the DOJ said.

The imaged passport applications on PIERS contain a photograph of the passport applicant, plus personal information such as the applicant's full name, date and place of birth, current address, telephone numbers, parent information, spouse's name and emergency contact information. These confidential files are protected by the Privacy Act of 1974, and access to State Department employees is strictly limited to official government duties, the DOJ said in a press release.

While pleading guilty, Yontz acknowledged that he viewed the passport applications of nearly 200 people, including his colleagues, neighbors, athletes, actors, politicians, musicians, members of the media, and game-show contestants. He viewed those files between February 2005 and March of this year, the DOJ said. Yontz, during his plea hearing, said he had no official reason to view those passport files, and his only reason for doing so was "idle curiosity," the DOJ said.

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