Joven claims City had major data breach

Attorney says mayor, others retaliating against Brooks

Odessa Mayor Javier Joven speaks at a press conference Monday, July 17, 2023, to address allegations that someone has accessed the city’s computer network numerous times since December using a former Odessa city attorney’s accounts. (Ruth Campbell | Odessa American)

Odessa Mayor Javier Joven announced Monday that someone has accessed the city’s computer network numerous times since December using former Odessa City Attorney Natasha Brooks’ accounts, which someone failed to deactivate following her termination Dec. 13.

The Odessa Police Department, with the assistance of other law enforcement agencies, launched an investigation after city officials discovered last week that sensitive information was transferred by email to a private account.

A number of systems were accessed, such as Odessa Police Department reports, personnel information, and GovQA which is the City’s hosted system for public information requests, Joven said during a press conference Monday.

It’s unknown at this time exactly how sensitive the transferred data was, but just the breach itself is concerning.

Although the number is a “fluid” one, Joven said it appears as though 200 emails and other data were accessed.

“The investigation is searching if the breach happened within or without. If there was an outside hacking without the authorization or knowledge of the former employee or was it with the direct actions of the former employee or within the city of Odessa,” Joven said.

Once the investigation concludes, the city will use all means available, including criminal charges, to ensure that everyone involved in this breach is punished to the full extent of the law, Joven said.

He noted much of the information gathered could have been obtained through a Texas Public Information Act request.

Joven was asked if the investigation is connected to the recent termination of IT Director Michael Parrish. He said the council doesn’t comment on personnel matters, but he also said everything is being looked at.

Steps have been taken to ensure additional breaches can’t take place, Joven said.

El Paso attorney John Wenke, who represents Brooks, said the City of Odessa has repeatedly engaged in acts of retaliation against his client since she was fired without explanation.

“What we’re seeing here could be evidence of ongoing retaliation in a race and retaliation lawsuit. So, you know, it appears that the city is not being too smart in handling this matter and digging a hole that they may not be able to get out of,” Wenke said.

According to records obtained under the Texas Public Information Act, Wenke sent the city a letter back in February informing officials he was hired by Brooks and she intended to file a legal claim against the city for breach of contract and race discrimination. He gave city officials formal notice they should not “destroy, conceal or alter in any matter, any or all evidence, documents, information, electronically stored information and/or other tangible items that pertain or relate to Ms. Brooks’ employment, termination, allegations of misconduct and investigations related to these allegations.”

Wenke wrote that during her time with the city Brooks had consistently received favorable performance evaluations and pay raises. She’d never been disciplined and when she was terminated, she wasn’t given a termination letter or explanation, he said.

Records also indicate that a month after Brooks was fired, her replacement, Dan Jones, sent an email to First Assistant Ector County District Attorney Greg Barber asking if Brooks had broken the law two years before she was fired by allegedly ordering staff members to backdate conflict of interest documents signed by City Councilmember Steve Thompson.

He also asked if she had violated the law by allegedly ordering staff members to destroy the backdated documents. Jones further enquired as to whether Brooks may have committed other crimes besides destruction of government property.

Jones also asked Barber to grant “complete immunity” to Thompson, City Secretary Norma Aguilar-Grimaldo and public notary Naira Enriquez.

Also included amongst the emails obtained by the OA were copies of City Councilmember Denise Swanner’s state bar complaint against Brooks, which was filed Jan. 30. She cited the backdated documents in her complaint and attached affidavits from Thompson, Aguilar-Grimaldo and Enriquez alleging she had them backdate the documents.

As of Monday, the bar has not imposed any disciplinary measures against Brooks, whose appointment as Iowa City, Iowa’s city attorney was also announced in city emails.

No responses from Barber were found in the records provided to the OA and Ector County District Attorney Dusty Gallivan has declined to comment.

Brooks still hasn’t been paid what she is due under the terms of her contract and although a mediation session was scheduled for last month it did not take place, Wenke said.

The city maintains she was fired “for cause” and isn’t entitled to severance pay.

“This should have been a relatively routine, employee-employer dispute regarding the severance, but it has morphed into something much bigger,” Wenke said.

Wenke cited Swanner’s bar complaint and Jones’ letter to the District Attorney’s Office as the first acts of retaliation and now she’s being linked to a data breach just days after she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging racism, he said.

“Mostly recently we found out that the city leaked an EEOC charge to this Odessa Accountability Project, which seems to be a pro-Joven administration Facebook page. These charges are confidential under federal law, and you know, who leaked it might be in violation of these federal statutes,” Wenke said. “The only people that had it was probably the city attorney’s office when the EEOC charge was filed.”

Wenke called the latest allegations “trumped up” and noted it’s not normal to call for press conferences about internal employee investigations.

Up until now, he and his client have preferred to keep the legal dispute out of the public.

“But now it seems like the city’s intent on trying to punish Miss Brooks for exercising her legal rights and initially getting a severance, which was agreed upon per her contract. But since she’s raised issues of race discrimination, I think we’ve seen a pattern of retaliation and this is the latest,” Wenke said.

Wenke said his client doesn’t have the ability to access the city’s computer system or its servers.

“With respect to the emails, I think one question that you need the city to answer is ‘Did you remove Miss Brooks’s access to her emails after her termination?’ OK, so I’m not sure you can have a breach if access was never revoked,” Wenke said.

Again, Wenke said it’s all about retaliation.

“This is just kind of an ongoing effort to discredit her, to make her look bad, to embarrass her, to harm her professionally. And the question begs itself is why are they so afraid of Natasha Brooks?” Wenke said. “She’s a former city attorney that’s not working in the Midland-Odessa area anymore. Why are they so afraid of her? That’s my take. I think the residents of Odessa should be concerned that certain city officials appear to be misusing or abusing their powers to target anyone who questions or authority or disagrees with them.”

The City Council held an almost two hour executive session and announced they had reached a consensus to issue a sworn affidavit asking law enforcement to investigate the matter.