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City’s IT Team Catches Alleged Data Breach in Finance Department

Officials became aware of a “large-scale security breach of electronic financial records at Huntington Park City Hall” that was “intercepted and contained” by the city’s IT department, and the Huntington Park Police Department initiated a criminal investigation.

Almost the entire roster of Huntington Park’s finance department was placed on administrative leave and one staffer was arrested as part of an investigation into a records breach that has sparked competing claims of wrongdoing by city employees.

A statement issued by the city this week said that officials became aware of a “large-scale security breach of electronic financial records at Huntington Park City Hall” that was “intercepted and contained” by the city’s IT department, and that the Huntington Park Police Department initiated a criminal investigation.

The statement said the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Fraud and Cyber Crimes Bureau was asked to help with the investigation and is now the lead agency. The statement said a 48-year-old city employee was arrested and booked on felony charges but did not specify what they were.

City officials said they didn’t think any residents’ records were accessed but were continuing to assess the breach.

Budget analyst Teresa Garcia was arrested and detained last week on suspicion of unauthorized computer access and identity theft, according to a summary of the charges in a complaint she filed with the city contesting the allegations.

On Monday, five other finance department employees were escorted from City Hall by Huntington Park police, according to their attorney, Oshea Orchid, who also represents Garcia.

The departures led to the closure Monday and Tuesday of the finance department, which handles payroll, budgets, licensing fees and other financial transactions.

Orchid said Garcia and the others who were placed on leave did nothing wrong. She alleged that the finance department staff is being targeted in an attempted coverup of suspicious bank transfers and city contracts that some employees allege are being improperly awarded to companies with political ties.

“We believe that management is concerned about them having access to information about the budget and bank accounts, because the employee arrested was someone with a great deal of access to bank accounts and transfers,” Orchid said.

The city’s employee union this week filed a document with the state Public Employee Relations Board alleging unfair labor practices and a pattern of city officials targeting finance department employees for retaliation.

The extraordinary events unfolded after officials discovered that a finance staffer had allegedly “captured employee identity information” in what Mayor Graciela Ortiz called “a serious breach of confidential data.”

City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman told The Times an investigation of the alleged data breach was begun Thursday, the day Garcia was arrested.

City officials confirmed that six staffers in the nine-member finance department were on leave.

One of those remaining was finance director Nita McKay, according to Orchid.

Few details have emerged about the bizarre episode. Reached by phone, McKay declined to answer questions. Alvarez-Glasman confirmed that a number of employees were placed on administrative leave but would not provide more details, citing the need for confidentiality.

Ortiz said the finance staffers were placed on temporary paid administrative leave to “maximize the integrity” of the sheriff’s ongoing investigation.

City officials Monday issued a notice to employees to “remain vigilant against incidents of identity theft or fraud.”

Huntington Park police detained Garcia on Thursday and seized “all of her belongings from her including her personal phone, Apple watch and hard drive. She was then fully searched and put in a cell” for several hours, according to a legal claim she filed against the city Monday.

The claim said she began downloading financial records to a hard drive in 2019, when she became “concerned that city officials may be mishandling public funds and that the city’s contracts may be given out to certain companies due to their political ties rather than the city following its procedure.”

She also learned that the FBI “was investigating the city based on allegations of this nature,” the claim said. The claim is a precursor to a lawsuit.

The city had posted a notice on Facebook this week, saying the finance department was “open to make water, business license and pet license payments.”

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