Pottstown Mercury files included Social Security numbers, home addresses and other private data
By Julie Reynolds
Employees’ personnel records and private data were left behind and exposed when executives of MediaNews Group (formerly called Digital First Media) hastily abandoned the Mercury newspaper’s building last year in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, DFMworkers has learned.
Alarmed, current and former staffers are now asking how their private data — including Social Security numbers, home addresses, and other sensitive information — were still inside a building where construction workers, developers and others walked through the abandoned mess left behind.
Kevin Hoffman was a photographer at the Mercury for 30 years before he was laid off in 2017. “I was informed by telephone on my day off that they eliminated my full time staff photographer position two weeks before Christmas in December of 2016,” he said. “They made me work through the Christmas holiday which was very painful. Ten other photographers were eliminated company-wide also.”
After the building was sold, Kevin learned that a friend was working with crews that were rehabilitating the space. His friend was shocked to see that the building looked like it had been hastily abandoned — littered with furniture, electronics and paper files.
“He said, ‘Let me call my buddy Kevin, he used to work there, and look around.’” Hoffman said. At the friend’s request, Hoffman snapped pictures of the leftover equipment and furniture with a cell phone.
He thought maybe some employees would “like their stuff back,” or that there could be charities that could use some of it.
Hoffman said what he found inside shocked him. Half-full coffee cups, piles of hard drives likely still containing all kinds of data, papers strewn across desks — as if the occupants had been forced to suddenly flee.
Hoffman posted his furniture pictures on Facebook, and it “went out tenfold. Everybody shared it.” People began going to the building to pick up property.
CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE | Photos by Kevin Hoffman
“It started snowballing from there.” Soon he heard that sensitive personnel files were also found.
“I was thinking, wait a minute, my Social Security number is on that stuff.”
He said Mercury publisher Ed Condra eventually showed up “with another gentleman from the Reading Eagle. They said, ‘We’re taking the files out of the building.’ But the guy supervising cleanup said, ‘You’re not taking anything.’”
Hoffman says he never saw the personnel files. But former Mercury editor Eileen Faust did.
As a local history buff, Faust began to worry that Digital First management “had left something of value” in their recently sold building that might be meaningful to the local historical society or library.
So Faust reached out to the people renovating the building and asked if she could look around and “make sure that nothing that might be of importance was lost,” she said.
“Digital First left that building a mess. It was just very sad to see.”
When she entered the publisher’s office, she saw that employees’ personnel files had been left behind in the filing cabinets.
“It was a bit of a shock to realize they were still there,” she said. “Obviously they didn’t care enough to properly dispose of them.”
“I kind of felt sick,” she said. Faust now works in financial services, where she is “trained to properly report,” she said. “People’s personal data can make them so vulnerable.”
“It was a terrible situation… to just leave it.”
As she walked out of the room, Faust said, “I had a million things running through my head. What do I do? I was just lucky I was in the union when I was there because that gave me a resource.”
She immediately notified Bill Ross, director of The NewsGuild-CWA Local 38010, which represents workers at Digital First Media’s Philadelphia-area newspapers.
Ross alerted Condra, who at first assured Ross the records had been destroyed. On Jan. 23, Ross sent the following email to Condra:
It has come to my attention that employee records, containing sensitive personal information (social security numbers, dates of birth, etc.), have been left behind at the Pottstown Mercury News building. It is with horror that these personnel and pension files have been located in old offices, including the publisher’s office, which are now being accessed by construction workers and representatives of the new ownership. Filing cabinets housing this information were found to be unlocked. This lack of responsibility to secure this information has put these individuals at risk of identity theft and immeasurable exposure to other criminal activity that may occur. Your neglect to protect this information is inexcusable.
The NewsGuild is demanding that these records be removed, inventoried and either secured or disposed of immediately as required by law. Individuals impacted should be notified of this breach immediately and the company needs to find ways to repair the damage, such as, by offering identity theft protection for a reasonable amount of time.
We are also concerned that this situation may also be occurring at the abandoned Norristown office building.
This situation demands your immediate attention.
Condra responded the same day with:
Can you give me a specific instance?
We took great care to move all current and active employee personnel files to our new locations and we used a professional record disposal company to destroy all past personnel records. We did this at all facilities that we vacated.
Please call me to discuss further.
Except that it wasn’t true. It would be five more days before the records were shredded. Condra emailed Ross on Tuesday to tell him the deed was finally done.
“As discussed all remaining documents were destroyed today. Attached are a few photos,” Condra wrote.
Photos provided to Bill Ross by Ed Condra
Ross says the NewsGuild is still demanding that affected personnel be provided with some sort of identity theft protection.
He adds he’s been told the new owner wants to turn the building into a boutique hotel and has been cooperative in trying to address the personnel files issue.
“Urine all over the floor”
The 12,000-square-foot building was sold last year and the few remaining staffers now work from home attics, coffee shops, cars or a printing plant a half-hour drive from the town they cover.
The building was acquired shortly after Alden took over the newspaper, and in recent years was the subject of serious complaints ranging from mold infestations to leaky plumbing.
Ross said that before the building was sold, union officials filed a complaint with the local board of health “over the hole in the roof, water damage and mildew. One bathroom was unusable with urine all over the floor.”
“Shortly after the board of health visited, the building shut down,” he added.
The Mercury building before it sold | Provided photos
An Alden shell company called 24 N Hanover Street LLC bought the building in 2013 for $1.19 million, according to Montgomery County records. In October, the shell company sold it to a Pottstown-based entity called 30 N Hanover LLC for $440,000.
Alden has been systematically selling off nearly all of its newspapers’ real estate, often using its subsidiary Twenty Lake Holdings, which happens to share the same Manhattan address and suite number as the LLC that Alden used to acquire the Mercury.
Just to make this clear: the cash from the building’s sale last year will not be plowed back into the Mercury — that money went to Alden’s headquarters.
Like some other wealthy investors, Alden executives Randall Smith and Heath Freeman often use shell companies called LLCs that in turn own or control other shell companies that on paper own their real estate. It’s a secretive structure that’s been likened to a never-ending series of nesting dolls.
Most of Alden’s shell companies are based in Delaware, a corporate secrecy haven where tracing ownership is next to impossible. But real estate records that show the shell companies’ mailing address reveal they are often connected to Alden.
Ross says The NewsGuild is still waiting for a response from the company about providing identity theft protection to affected employees. He said Condra told him the employees’ names were catalogued before the shredding, but Condra was waiting for word from company counsel as to whether he could share the names with the Guild.
Faust said she’s relieved the Mercury personnel records were finally shredded, but adds the whole affair makes her wonder about Digital First’s business practices.
“Now I have to question how they handled records in general. You’re trusting that they will take care of it.” She said she hopes this isn’t “the modus operandi of this company going forward. I’m worried that this could be the case again.”
“This just shows what kind of respect they have for the communities they work in,” Faust said.