Houston County officials reprimanded in DVD pirating operation - KTTC Rochester, Austin, Mason City News, Weather and Sports

Case closed: Houston County officials reprimanded in DVD pirating operation

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CALEDONIA, Minn. (KTTC) -- The FBI looked at it, there have been internal and outside investigations and two county employees have been punished over the use of government property to make "pirate" or duplicate DVDs of movies.

In mid-2009, former Houston County digital network administrator Lindsay Pierce saw what he calls "suspicious activity" at the Sheriff's Office.

"The county owns a duplicator that will make five discs at a time that we use for court cases and things like that, and I had replaced four or five drives and that seemed unusual. I actually saw one of the people involved actually making movies," Pierce said.

Pierce found an email that suggested a number of Houston County Sheriff's Office employees were involved in an illegal DVD copying operation.

"The emails were from Mark Olson to Kevin Walther and Scott Yeiter, who was the chief deputy, with an attachment in there about the blockbuster Fab DVD operation. And in there it stated that Andy Milde who is the IS director and Doug Ely preferred one option compared to the other. It's all in black and white," Pierce said.

Kevin Kelleher was a Houston County Commissioner for 16 years. He says he brought the issue before the county board a number of times.

"I've given them evidence that I had that showed that members of the Houston County Sheriff's Department were in fact copying DVDs. Not just ones or twos, but hundreds," Kelleher said.

FBI agents from Rochester confirmed that they looked into the allegations. They said they spent an hour in Caledonia before deciding the case didn't fall within their federal prosecuting guidelines.  The FBI suggested that the County Attorney initiate an internal investigation.

But because the emails suggested that Sheriff Doug Ely, along with a handful of other Sheriff's Office employees, might have been involved in burning pirate DVDs, county officials recused themselves from conducting an internal investigation and hired an outside investigator.

In July 2010, the county hired a lawyer from Rosemount to investigate. Once the investigation was complete, the report became public record.

The evidence attached to the investigator's report describes a plan that the men used to split up the cost of a new DVD/FABrication program to avoid the issues they were having with Houston County equipment so they could continue copying DVDs and distributing them.

The document says that former Information Systems Director Andy Milde allowed his Blockbuster video account to be used by a person in the Sheriff's Office for the purpose of making and distributing unauthorized copies of copyrighted DVDs.

We attempted to contact Sheriff Ely and deputies more than a dozen times.  None would return our calls.

"If the public cannot trust that law enforcement is law-abiding, then how can they trust that they are going to be treated with true justice?" Kelleher said.

Anyone who pops in a DVD sees the prominent warning across their screen.

No one in the case has yet been charged with any criminal wrongdoing.  But the county gave written reprimands to the county's finance director at the time, Casey Bradley, and the current I.T. Director, Andy Milde, for failing to report to the State Auditor the use of county equipment for unlawful purposes.

The Houston County Attorney's Office says the case is closed.

There's been little explanation why the FBI has not pursued the DVD-duplication matter more aggressively.

The threatened punishment for reproducing or redistributing a copyrighted DVD is clear. It could be a fine of up to $250,000 and up to five years in federal prison.

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