ADOT didn't just fire Cliff Young; it attempted to crucify him

Cliff Young was a good employee. During the first 21 years of Young's career at the Arizona Department of Transportation, his performance evaluations were great. He never faced so much as a written reprimand from his supervisors.

So it was kind of strange to sit in a courtroom last month, waiting for a judge to decide whether Cliff Young should go to prison for a crime committed against ADOT.

As the official "victim" in State v. Young, the agency urged that Young be given hard time. In a letter to the judge, a top ADOT administrator asked that Young "be given the most severe punishment permissible for the crime he committed."

That's two years in the slam, and we're not talking Tent City. We're talking prison. Young is a slight man who's spent most of his career as a network engineer — you can't imagine a guy who's less of a threat to society. And really, you can't imagine a guy who'd have a harder time adapting to prison.

ADOT's request was strictly punitive.

So what was the crime?

Young looked at some computer files that he was not authorized to view.

And let's be clear about what that means.

He wasn't sneaking into ADOT servers getting information in order to stalk a buxom colleague. Nor was he pulling Social Security numbers to steal his coworkers' identities and, perhaps, finance a meth habit.

Even in the prosecutors' version, Young did little more than open and print out an Excel sheet that compared performance evaluations of employees in different departments, access grievance information that showed which employees were complaining, and look at a few other macro-level documents.

Of course, he wasn't supposed to look at them, much less share them, and ADOT was right to take action.

Now, I think even firing him was a bit of an overreaction, but I work in an office where bad behavior is tolerated, and sometimes even praised. A writer here once kicked his foot through a wall when his computer crashed — and suffered no consequences whatsoever. Surely, others should be allowed their higher standards.

But charging a man with a felony for looking at the wrong files?

I've written about an ADOT employee who took freebies from the contractors he was supposed to be monitoring — and then extended the contract of one of his benefactors for five years, without allowing competitors a chance to bid. I've written about another employee who helped award millions of dollars in work to companies that hired his daughters. (See "Roadkill," June 22, 2006.)

Those employees may well have cost the taxpayers millions. But ADOT never did anything to rein them in, let alone punish them. They were allowed to retire with their good names — and pensions — intact. As far as I can tell, there's never been a real investigation into their actions.

Somehow, Cliff Young, a dedicated employee who did nothing more than look at records he wasn't supposed to look at, didn't just get fired. He got charged with a felony.

I'm not the only one who found this a little . . . screwy.

In the courtroom for sentencing on Good Friday, the assistant attorney general handling the case asked Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Edward Burke to consider the letter from the "victim," ADOT, the one that asked for a two-year prison sentence. The letter was written by John Bogert, chief of staff for ADOT Director Victor Mendez.

Burke, to his credit, looked like he was trying to contain his laughter.

"I think Mr. Bogert's letter was a little over the top," Judge Burke said. "I don't know all the politics going on down there at ADOT, and I don't need to know them. This is an employee who had an exemplary career."

You could almost see Young visibly relax.

Judge Burke then sentenced Young to a $200 fine and probation. If he successfully completes the terms, and does some community service, his felony will be reduced to a misdemeanor.

It was as close as a judge could come to telling the "victim" to go jump in a lake.

The backstory on this one is about as weird as the front story. But here goes.

Now 51, Young started working for ADOT in 1984. An Air Force veteran, he started in equipment services and quickly worked his way up to a management position as a network engineer. But a reorganization in 2004 put him on the Server Team, dealing with ADOT's linked network of computers — and back in a subservient role.

"I was a manager for sixteen years, and then I was pushed out," he says.

His new role still gave him access to high-level documents. As one of the guys running the system, Young knew how to get around in it.

But he says that's not how he found the documents that would come to haunt him.

In April 2006, Young claims, he came into work one day to find a computer disk lying on his desk. He popped it into his computer and voilà! There was a document showing that employees in Young's department were being systematically discriminated against on their performance evaluations.

Young did what any of us would do: He shared it with his department.

The employees erupted. And when Young showed a printout of the document to his boss, his boss surely knew he had a problem on his hands.

But when the boss called the boss' boss, the Big Boss was far less worried about the allegation of discrimination than about how Young had gotten his hands on a confidential document. An investigation was launched, and ADOT determined that there was no disk, that Young had used his computer savvy to sneak into files he wasn't supposed to see.

They fired him.

Naturally, that rather killed the controversy over the performance evaluations.

To this day, Young insists he saw the document via the anonymously delivered disk — and that he never sneaked into anything. But the hearing officer who weighed his termination decided that his answers weren't truthful.

"Dismissal may appear, at least superficially, to be a drastic action against a long-time employee for accessing some computer files," wrote David Gering.

However, Gering wrote, an ADOT supervisor "testified that the showing of the spreadsheet caused problems with the Server Team that later had to be dealt with by management. Perhaps more to the point, however, is that as a member of the Server Team, [Young] had domain administrator authority with access to all of the documents in the entire Department of Transportation."

Once Young showed that he couldn't be trusted, Gering concluded, it was "probably the only realistic option" to fire him.

That was in October 2006. And in any normal universe, that would have been the end of it. As a single dad raising a junior-high student, Young certainly felt the loss of his $69,000 salary. (Today, he works full time for the local union that represents ADOT employees and makes just $12 an hour, no benefits.) He'd been punished pretty severely for a one-time lapse.

But in January 2007, Young got indicted.


ADOT isn't talking. The agency, says spokesman Timothy Tait, "will let the documents released as part of the formal court process stand as our statement without further comment."

The attorney general's office, which prosecuted the case at ADOT's recommendation, defends its decision to press charges.

"He broke the law," says Andrea Esquer, a spokeswoman for the office. "The jury took less than an hour to convict him."

That's true. But it's also true that Young's lawyer called no witnesses, other than Young, in his defense. And the jury was probably right to convict on the charges: A hearing officer concluded the same thing, that Young did access files he wasn't supposed to access.

The question is why this was a criminal case in the first place. Take the far more serious breach at the State Department, where nosy staffers went looking at passport information for Barack Obama and John McCain and Hillary Clinton; nobody got prosecuted for that. (They didn't even get fired, apparently, but that's another story.) And even the hearing officer on the civil side, the guy who found Young's testimony "untrustworthy," never suggested there should be any follow-up investigation.

In fact, I suspect even the Attorney General's Office knew the case was a dog. Esquer says they offered Young a series of plea deals, including one that would have allowed him to plead "no contest" to a misdemeanor. They don't do that for serious criminals — with good reason.

Still, "I wasn't going to plead guilty to anything," Young says. He's already filed his appeal.

So the state spent months preparing the case, plus four days in court with the jury. We the taxpayers had to pay for both the prosecution and the public defender who represented Young. We'll spend more money fighting the appeal.

All that for a $200 fine.

No wonder Judge Burke was so amused.