ALBANY, N.Y. — A federal lawsuit claims officials of an upstate town issued five false criminal subpoenas to make Time Warner Cable identify the RoadRunner e-mail subscribers who were anonymously criticizing emergency services.
Hugh Skerker and William Gardner claim officials in the Albany suburb of Colonie retaliated against them and violated their rights to due process and freedom of speech. They seek unspecified damages from the town and five officials, including a police investigator.
“They’re whistleblowers,” attorney Kevin Luibrand said. “The town has stated in testimony that there never was a criminal investigation.”
Their suit, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Albany, says the Internet service provider responded to the subpoenas by disclosing their names without informing them. Time Warner Cable is not a defendant.
Skerker, a 47-year-old paramedic in Colonie, was suspended for six months in 2004, accused of disseminating confidential information through the e-mails. Gardner, 53, a part-time volunteer emergency medical technician, was dismissed. Skerker fought his suspension through arbitration. It was reduced to three months. He has not returned to the job.
The e-mails alleged deficiencies in personnel, equipment and treatment in Colonie’s emergency services department.
Attorney Edwin Tobin says the town has acknowledged some mistakes in the procedures it used to issue subpoenas but maintains it was entitled to know who was sending the anonymous messages to Town Supervisor Mary Brizzell in late 2003 and early 2004.
The Public Employment Relations Board concluded in arbitration that most of Skerker’s e-mails were “basically the ramblings of a disgruntled employee who appeared to be trying to get back at his supervisors,” Tobin said. “The town was getting barraged by e-mails of this nature. The town ... had legitimate concerns in trying to find out who was sending those and issued subpoenas by which they acquired the name, address and user name.”
Mark Harrad, spokesman for Time Warner Cable, said their general policy is to refuse requests to identify their 4.3 million residential Internet customers because of privacy concerns. However, they probably get more than 100 subpoenas a month in their 27-state service area, mostly in civil cases, and the company complies with legal court and administrative orders, he said.
“It’s not a flood, but it’s not a rarity either,” Harrad said.
Criminal subpoenas often specify not telling the customer, the Time Warner Cable spokesman said.
“In this case we would have done what the subpoena told us to, making the presumption it was properly executed by the town attorney, by the government agency. We were required to act the way we did,” he said.
When the Recording Industry Association of America was trying to crack down on Internet music pirating a few years ago, Harrad said Time Warner Cable notified subscribers of the civil subpoenas, providing subscribers an opportunity to contest them.