All's well that ends well with Martin County Tax Collector's saga? Not so fast. | Opinion

·5 min read

"Yes! We're open!" read the enthusiastic headline on an entry posted last week at the Martin County Tax Collector's Office website.

The post, under the "important news" tab, went on to say the tax collector's main office and its branches are offering a full array of services.

What makes that newsworthy is the office hadn't been operating at full capacity for more than five weeks.

After the office's computers were shut down following an unspecified "security incident" in mid-October, it has taken this long to get everything back online.

So, case closed? Move along? There's nothing to see here?

I don't think we're quite there yet.

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Welcome news: All Martin County Tax Collector's Office branches open; probe of 'security incident' continues

Ruth Pietruszewski, Martin County Tax Collector; Joseph Tumminelli, Stuart Police Chief; Thelma Washington, GWCCC executive director and Tom Campenni, GWCCC board member n 2019.
Ruth Pietruszewski, Martin County Tax Collector; Joseph Tumminelli, Stuart Police Chief; Thelma Washington, GWCCC executive director and Tom Campenni, GWCCC board member n 2019.

Martin County residents trying to pay their taxes or get license plates apparently won't have to deal with the inconvenience or uncertainty that have hampered the office's operations over the past several weeks.

Nor will St. Lucie County residents, who briefly had to endure longer lines when their tax collector's office tried to pick up some of the slack for Martin County.

Still, some key questions remain unanswered. The most basic: What the heck happened here?

A few days after the office shut down, I wrote a column criticizing Tax Collector Ruth Pietruszewski for failing to keep citizens informed about what was going on.

Since then, Pietruszewski and her staff have been somewhat better about responding to inquiries, although they still haven't shared very much information with the media or the public.

We've learned the FBI has been investigating possible criminal activity related to the shutdown. Pietruszewski said the FBI asked her to remain quiet about the details of that probe.

In the last text I received from her on Friday, she said the investigation remains "active and open."

Customers inquire about issues with the locked tag office of the Martin County Tax Collector offices at the Willoughby Commons office buildings, leaving them to unable to update their license plates on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021 in Stuart.
Customers inquire about issues with the locked tag office of the Martin County Tax Collector offices at the Willoughby Commons office buildings, leaving them to unable to update their license plates on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021 in Stuart.

I can sympathize with the reluctance to share information, but only to a point.

When I was the communications director for the Tennessee Department of Treasury, we had a situation once where an employee downloaded onto his personal computer some sensitive data about a group of enrollees in the state's retirement system.

My boss, the state treasurer, reported the matter to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which began looking into what happened. There were suspicions the employee might have wanted access to the enrollees' personal data for nefarious purposes, such as identity theft.

The TBI told us not to comment to the media during the initial stages of the investigation.

From a communications director's perspective, this was a tough request to honor.

Our department took immediate steps to harden security within its offices. And it made credit check services available for retirement plan enrollees who might have become vulnerable to identity theft as a result of the rogue employee's actions.

We wanted to let the public know that A) we weren't trying to cover up what happened; and B) we were taking appropriate steps to fix the problem.

So we pushed the TBI to let us release information as soon as we could without jeopardizing the investigation. That happened within a matter of days, not weeks or months.

The Martin County Tax Collector Office for licenses, auto tags and titles at the Willoughby Commons office are currently closed, leaving customers to unable to update their license plates, titles, and licenses at this office on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021 in Stuart.
The Martin County Tax Collector Office for licenses, auto tags and titles at the Willoughby Commons office are currently closed, leaving customers to unable to update their license plates, titles, and licenses at this office on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021 in Stuart.

I understand the TBI is not the FBI. And I understand circumstances vary from investigation to investigation.

However, if the FBI is waiting until the books on this case are closed before it releases any information, that's a departure from standard operating practices.

To cite just one recent example, the FBI didn't go completely silent when it was investigating the disappearance and murder of Florida resident Gabby Petito. The agency provided regular updates on the case and the search for Brian Laundrie, who was suspected of killing Petito.

So why can't it do something similar in this situation?

It's always tricky to make assumptions, but if criminal activity occurred here, it seems plausible it involved someone trying to hack into the tax collector's records.

If you've registered a vehicle or applied for a driver's license in Martin County, you've provided the tax collector's office with exactly the type of information — Social Security number, date of birth, etc. — that could be used to forge your identity.

If a hacker has obtained this information, don't you have the right to know this so you can take steps to protect yourself and your assets?

And if a hacker tried and failed to get that information, aren't you entitled to know that, too?

TCPalm columnist Blake Fontenay
TCPalm columnist Blake Fontenay

When the FBI started investigating this case, there may have been some element of surprise its agents could use to their advantage.

At this point, though, the FBI's involvement is a worse-kept secret than Gov. Ron DeSantis' ambitions for higher political office.

If the hacker or hackers don't know G-men and/or G-women are on their trail by now, it seems highly unlikely they'll figure it out before they're fitted with handcuffs and jail jumpsuits.

I'm willing to admit there's a lot I don't know about this situation, so my opinion could change as new facts come to light.

However, it seems likely one of three scenarios applies:

1) There was criminal activity and the criminal or criminals remain at large. 2) There were criminals, but they've been caught and the threat has been neutralized. Or 3) There were no criminals and therefore no danger exists.

In none of those scenarios do I see a benefit in keeping citizens in the dark.

This column reflects the opinion of Blake Fontenay. Contact him via email at blake.fontenay@tcpalm.com or at 772-232-5424.

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: End mystery over Martin County Tax Collector's problems | Opinion

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