No charges in Lower Merion webcam case

Posted: August 18, 2010

Prosecutors on Tuesday said they would not bring criminal charges in the Lower Merion School District webcam saga, ending their six-month probe into allegations that employees spied on students through laptops.

U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger would not disclose details of the investigation except to say that agents and prosecutors concluded the evidence did not point to a crime.

"For the government to prosecute a criminal case, it must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person charged acted with criminal intent," Memeger said in a brief statement released by his office. "We have not found evidence that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone involved had criminal intent."

Lower Merion officials hailed the decision, and said it matched the district's own findings that no one had used the now-disabled tracking software to monitor students.

"This is all good news for the students and staff of Lower Merion School District as we prepare for the start of a new school year," said Superintendent Christopher McGinley.

The announcement marked a bright spot for an elite suburban district that has endured an unusually harsh spotlight in the last year.

The webcam furor drew international attention. On Monday, the Lower Merion school board, responding to a court order, adopted new policies governing how, when, and for what reasons staff will track the take-home laptops Lower Merion issues to each of its nearly 2,300 high school students.

Lower Merion also faced a civil rights trial over allegations that its high school redistricting plan discriminated against minority students. In June, a federal judge ruled the plan was legal, but both sides are preparing for an appeal.

It was also the year the district completed its long-awaited $200 million high school building project. On Tuesday, officials opened the doors at the new Lower Merion High School, 12 months after christening a new Harriton High School.

The U.S. attorney's announcement means an end to all criminal investigations into the case. Montgomery County prosecutors and Lower Merion police had also opened inquiries, but ultimately deferred and assisted the federal case.

The FBI and U.S. Attorney's Offices rarely confirm their decisions to start or end a criminal investigation. Memeger said he did so, in part, "to close at least one part of this matter" before the school year opens.

Still unresolved are lawsuits filed by two district students, including one that first exposed the tracking program in February and sparked the criminal inquiry.

The district's own investigation concluded that technicians used the software only to find lost or missing laptops. But its report also found that staffers often forgot to turn off the tracking system after they turned it on, letting the webcams snap tens of thousands of photos and send them to the district's servers in the last two years.

At least 40 students were secretly photographed through their laptops.

The FBI probe was coordinated with Montgomery County prosecutors and detectives and the Lower Merion police. Agents subpoenaed school district records, pored over computers, and interviewed several district employees, including the only two technology specialists with the authority to activate the laptop-tracking software.

Those employees - information systems coordinator Carol Cafiero and technician Michael Perbix - denied any wrongdoing, but have been suspended with pay since the laptop-tracking program came to light in February.

Marc Neff, an attorney for Perbix, said he believed the FBI probe was the last roadblock to reinstatement.

"I would hope that he would be back as soon as possible," Neff said.

Cafiero's attorney, Charles Mandracchia, said he was never worried about charges against his client. "They should call her back to work, because she didn't do anything wrong," he said.

Lower Merion spokesman Doug Young said he could not discuss Perbix's or Cafiero's status because they were personnel matters.

Also unresolved are the lawsuits filed by Harriton High junior Blake Robbins and Lower Merion High graduate Jalil Hasan. Both contend that the district invaded their privacy by secretly snapping hundreds of webcam photos, including shots of them inside their homes.Their attorney, Mark S. Haltzman, said Tuesday that the prosecutors' decision not to bring charges bolstered the need for new laws. Specifically, he referred to legislation proposed by Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) that would expand wiretap laws to cover technology such as laptop webcams.

"The inability of the federal government to prosecute those persons involved in the spying on the LMSD students and their families through school-issued laptops underscores the importance of Sen. Specter's efforts to amend the criminal statutes to close the loopholes in our current laws," Haltzman said.


Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 610-313-8120 or jmartin@phillynews.com.

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