University of Arkansas Police Department detectives came to the 5NEWS newsroom in Fayetteville this spring, seeking information about a comment posted by a reader on one of the station’s Web stories.
Campus police told 5NEWS managers they were attempting to determine who fraudulently used a professor’s email identity to send critical comments about her to media outlets, including 5newsonline.com.
Two campus detectives visited the 5NEWS newsroom on March 26, meeting with the station’s news managers. Investigators asked for the Internet protocol address of a comment posted on the station’s website on March 21. The station supplied the information to police.
Readers on the station’s website are permitted to post comments on most stories. Those readers are required to provide an email address.
Investigators later discovered the comments in question had been posted on the 5NEWS website from a Time Warner Cable IP address tracked to the Grand Hyatt hotel in San Antonio, according to a campus police incident report.
During their investigation, campus police said they questioned journalism professor Larry Foley about posting comments on the 5NEWS website criticizing journalism department colleagues Phyllis Miller and Jan Wicks, using Miller’s campus email identity without her permission.
Examining posts on Foley’s Facebook page, police verified he was in San Antonio when the Web comments were posted from there. Foley told investigators he “believes” he was not staying at the Grand Hyatt, according to the report.
Foley denied any involvement in the incident, the report states.
An email message obtained by 5NEWS through a Freedom of Information Act request shows Foley and his wife, Susan, had reservations at the Grand Hyatt in San Antonio on the date in March when the comments were posted from there.
5NEWS obtained that message by submitting a public records request to the Fayetteville Public Library, seeking emails from Susan Foley, the library’s developmental director, about the San Antonio trip. That email in October 2013 was from Susan Foley to her husband, Larry Foley.
Foley and Todd Shields, dean of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, did not return phone calls or emails from 5NEWS seeking comment for this report. University spokesman Mark Rushing said Foley and Shields believe the police report speaks for itself. The J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences includes the journalism department.
The police report states Miller learned of the comments after 5NEWS Assignments Manager Shain Bergan responded to an email sent to the station on March 21 by someone using her email and identity criticizing her and Wicks. The contents of the email were similar to the comments posted on the 5NEWS Web story.
Bergan replied to the email by asking, “Are you using Phyllis Miller’s email account?” Because the sender was using Miller’s email address, the response from Bergan went to Miller. Bergan’s response alerted Miller that her email and identity had been stolen, prompting her to file a police report, campus police said.
According to the incident report, Miller was concerned about her safety after learning that someone was sending “vicious and libelous” emails about her under her name.
“Dr. Miller was very upset about the incident and was concerned about her safety both at home and on campus,” the incident report states.
During the meeting at 5NEWS, Lt. Greg Foster told station news managers that a campus police officer on loan to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces was helping investigate the incident. That employee works out of the local FBI office, he said.
Rushing denied that anyone affiliated with the FBI was involved in the investigation. However, 5NEWS obtained a business card one officer involved in the case handed out during the investigation. The card identifies that officer, Kimberly Bertschy, as “Task Force Officer, FBI Little Rock Division, Squad 7″ and gives an FBI email address for her.
The message posted in the comments section of a 5NEWS Web story came from an email address identifying the user as “Phyl1” and using Miller’s campus email address, campus police said.
“Phyl1” was Miller’s personalized license plate number, leading police to conclude the person who sent the email “had some personal knowledge about Dr. Miller,” according to the incident report.
Investigators asked the Washington County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to issue a subpoena to Time Warner Cable requesting the origin of the post’s IP address. Time Warner responded that the IP address belonged to the internet service provider to the Grand Hyatt hotel in San Antonio, according to the incident report.
Whoever sent the email and postings created an account through the third-party website disqus.com, which does not require users to prove the email belongs to them, according to campus police.
The email and postings from “Phyl1” were sent to 5NEWS after the station published a Web story by Managing Editor Larry Henry and Bergan, citing documents indicating the journalism department’s choice to direct the university’s Center For Ethics In Journalism, Donna Lampkin Stephens, lacks journalism ethics teaching or research experience.
Henry is Miller’s son-in-law.
Meanwhile, the campus police incident report concludes that university police finished its investigation without any “direct” evidence of who created the disqus.com account or who posted the comments or sent the email using Miller’s campus email address.
Non-financial identity fraud is a Class D felony in Arkansas (Ark. Stat. Ann. §5-37-227) that can carry up to six years in prison, according to the Arkansas Sentencing Commission.
No one has been arrested in the case.
The police report states the case ultimately would have to be addressed either civilly by Miller or through administrative action by the journalism department or university.