[Cross-posted from the website Notes from the Chalkboard]
New evidence has emerged which substantiates allegations by former Department of Public Instruction director Carolyn Guthrie that her personal text messages were illegally monitored by someone on Superintendent Mark Johnson’s staff more than a year after her retirement in 2017.
A screenshot of Guthrie’s FindMy app taken in February of 2019 shows a MacBook Air with a device name of cguthrie-k2268 actively syncing to her personal iCloud account. An IT employee at DPI confirmed that this device name is consistent with the naming scheme the Department of Public Instruction uses for employee computers.
DPI has refused to turn over documents which could help shed light on exactly who was monitoring Guthrie’s communications without her knowledge. But deposition transcripts and related exhibits obtained through a public records request to the Department of Information Technology reveal important new details about the case.
The information calls into question Superintendent Mark Johnson’s sworn testimony about how DPI obtained the text message that was used to cancel the K-3 reading assessment procurement after an evaluation committee had recommended Amplify’s mClass tool. That cancellation paved the way for Johnson to make his controversial contract award to Istation.
Carolyn Guthrie served as DPI’s K-3 Literacy Director from December 2012 until September 2017. While in that role, she purchased MacBook Air laptops for everyone on the team including herself, which was somewhat unusual in an agency dominated by Windows devices.
Guthrie set up text message forwarding from her personal iPhone to the laptop for convenience. When she retired, she neglected to log out of her personal iCloud account before turning her laptop in.
On her last day at DPI, August 31, 2017, Carolyn Guthrie handed her MacBook to IT employee Haider Qasim, who assured her that the device would be wiped per department protocol. Guthrie walked off into her retirement and never gave the laptop a second thought. *Qasim did not respond to multiple voice mails requesting comment.*
In December of 2018, representatives of the K-3 reading assessment Request for Purchase evaluation team met with Superintendent Mark Johnson to inform him of their recommendation that North Carolina should continue using Amplify’s mClass tool.
About a month later, on January 8, 2019, Johnson called a meeting with voting members of the evaluation team. At the meeting, he gave a speech about the importance of freeing up more time for teachers to teach and the need to provide them with the right tools. According to deposition testimony by committee member Susan Laney, some of those present felt his remarks were intended to influence their votes in favor of Istation. At Johnson’s request, the committee voted again. Again Amplify came out on top.
That evening, one of those present–K-3 Literacy Consultant Abbey Whitford–had a phone conversation with Carolyn Guthrie in which she related her concerns about the unusual meeting with Johnson. Guthrie then sent a text message to another retired DPI employee, Anne Evans, which included details from the phone call.
On February 19, 2019, Abbey Whitford was unexpectedly called into a meeting with Mark Johnson’s Deputy Superintendent Pam Shue and HR Director Claire Miller. Whitford was accused of being the source of a confidentiality breach and confronted with a paper copy of the text message between Guthrie and Evans:
According to Whitford’s sworn deposition, when the meeting ended, she drove straight to Carolyn Guthrie’s house and told Guthrie she suspected that someone at DPI was monitoring her text messages. Guthrie pulled up the FindMy app on her iPhone.
Carolyn Guthrie later testified:
The screenshot Carolyn Guthrie took in February 2019 shows her DPI-issued MacBook Air still syncing to her personal iCloud account more than 17 months after she retired from the department and was assured it would be wiped. The map clearly indicates the active device is housed inside the Department of Public Instruction building.
Mark Johnson’s General Counsel Jonathan Sink informed the evaluation committee in March that the procurement would be cancelled due to an unspecified confidentiality breach. However, the existence of the now-infamous text message was initially kept secret. It wasn’t until late July that a redacted version was included in Mark Johnson’s denial of Amplify’s protest of his Istation contract award. This version was heavily cropped so it didn’t show the numerous personal family text messages in Carolyn Guthrie’s inbox and made it impossible to determine what kind of device the screenshot had been taken on.
In October 2019, a black and white version of the full text message was included as part of DPI Deputy Superintendent of Operations Kathryn Johnston’s affidavit in the Istation contract dispute and published by WBTV.
Finally, the full color screenshot was an exhibit in the January 2020 DIT hearing into the merits of the Istation contract award.
In the full screenshot, the background image shows the operating system on the computer is iOS Mojave, a version that was released in September of 2018. That means Guthrie’s laptop was either manually updated or automatically updated as part of a process controlled by DPI’s IT department.
It’s also interesting to note that “full screenshot” here doesn’t really mean full. The wider screenshot of the text message has actually been cropped to remove the menu bar at the top.
DPI computers include two logins, one for the IT department and one for the individual user. On Apple MacBooks with multiple user accounts, the menu bar always shows the name of the account that is currently logged in.
In other words, whoever took the text message screenshot on Carolyn Guthrie’s laptop cropped out the menu bar which would have shown her name. That would seem to be a tacit admission of wrongdoing.
Mark Johnson Testimony:
On December 4, 2019, Superintendent Mark Johnson gave a sworn deposition in the case of Amplify vs. DPI and Istation.
Johnson claimed he had no knowledge about anyone at the Department of Public Instruction monitoring computers for text messages. He testified that a paper copy of the screenshot was slid under the office door of Deputy Superintendent Pam Shue, and that DPI was investigating, but he said he didn’t know anything about the status of the investigation.
In the deposition, Mark Johnson was asked about Guthrie’s FindMy screenshot showing her DPI-issued MacBook Air still connected to her personal iCloud account inside the Department of Public Instruction building in February 2019. Johnson theorized that Guthrie may have come to DPI and faked the screenshot, because she was known to occasionally visit friends in the building after her retirement. This ludicrous explanation doesn’t account for why the MacBook Air on the FindMy screenshot precisely follows the DPI Information Technology department’s naming scheme for agency devices.
More about Pam Shue:
Mark Johnson claimed in his deposition that Guthrie’s text message initially appeared when an unknown whistleblower slid a paper copy of it under the door of Deputy Superintendent Pam Shue.
Pam Shue began working at the Department of Public Instruction in November 2017, about two months after Carolyn Guthrie retired. Her title was Deputy Superintendent for Early Education, which meant that K-3 Literacy reported to her.
In her deposition, Abbey Whitford testified that in September 2018 Pam Shue held a team meeting where she was extremely upset and told those present that they should not communicate by phone, email or text message with anyone who did not support the superintendent’s vision, and that they should block anyone who fit that description. Members of the team were confused by the apparent lack of context for such an order, and both Whitford and Guthrie testified that they later suspected it may have been issued after Shue became aware of content in Guthrie’s personal communications.
Shue was appointed by Mark Johnson as business owner of the K-3 reading assessment RFP and later cast her vote for Istation. She was never deposed in the Amplify/Istation case so did not testify under oath that she obtained the text message when it was slipped under her door.
At the January 2020 DIT hearing on the Istation contract, DPI procurement chief Tymica Dunn testified that she saw Pam Shue with a printout of the text message in her hand a few days after the January 8, 2019 meeting, but that the image showed only the text message portion and not the inbox section on the left. Dunn said she directed Shue to take the message to Deputy Superintendent of Operations Kathryn Johnston.
The detail about what the image looked like is crucial because Mark Johnson testified in his deposition that the text message printout he initially saw was not the closely cropped version that Dunn had previously seen, but rather the larger image with the background and inbox visible.
According to these explanations, Shue obtained the message by someone sliding a paper under her door. Then somehow it later went from an initial heavily cropped version to a less cropped version.
Pam Shue left DPI at the end of June 2019, shortly before Carolyn Guthrie’s text message was first released to the public. She has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
DPI response and public records denial:
Since allegations of unethical and potentially criminal violations of North Carolina’s ‘one party consent’ wiretapping statute became public, the Department of Public Instruction has downplayed the seriousness of the claims. Mark Johnson mocked the allegations with references to elite ninjas and a “DPI Spy Team” in a radio interview, and DPI spokesman Graham Wilson called them “blogger conspiracies.”
At the same time, DPI has denied lawful public records requests that would answer the fundamental question in the case:
Who had Carolyn Guthrie’s former MacBook Air on January 8, 2019?
Multiple North Carolina citizens have filed requests under North Carolina Public Records Law for fixed asset inventory logs which NC Office of the State Controller policy requires all state agencies to maintain. Those logs would show where Guthrie’s laptop went after she retired.
Incredibly, DPI claimed that the “Request for Transfer of Fixed Asset Inventory” forms were confidential personnel files and could not be released.
According to Dr. Brooks Fuller, Director of the NC Open Government Coalition, public agencies often try to stretch the personnel exemption in public records law to fit anything about an employee. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court has already affirmed that protected personnel information is only information that: 1) is collected by the government employer; 2) for a purpose enumerated in the statute. Those protected purposes are: application, selection, promotion, demotion, transfer, leave, salary, contract for employment, benefits, suspension, performance evaluation, disciplinary actions, and termination.
Dr. Fuller told me, “The question of whether a public employee was assigned a specific publicly funded device does not, in my opinion, meet any of these statutory reasons for exemption. I think this is likely an attempt by DPI to extend the reach of the statute beyond its natural and plain meaning.”
What’s the real reason the Department of Public Instruction doesn’t want to be transparent on the matter?
To date, the North Carolina Attorney General, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, and the Wake County District Attorney have all declined to investigate this potential Class H felony that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests occurred at DPI. The Attorney General’s office and SBI told me they don’t have jurisdiction in the case–although a couple of knowledgeable attorneys have suggested to me that jurisdiction is sometimes determined by what is politically expedient.
The Wake County District Attorney reviewed the matter, then informed me that she didn’t intend to open a criminal investigation.
If you want to live in a North Carolina where criminal violations of wiretapping law can’t simply be laughed off by elected officials, and public records requests can’t be stonewalled as part of a possible coverup, please consider contacting your local and state representatives to express your concern about the matter.
Justin Parmenter is an educator and public school advocate who lives in Charlotte. He blogs regularly at Notes from The Chalkboard.