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Scope of missing data concerning to investigators in Swallow case

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Posted at 10:12 PM, Nov 05, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-06 00:12:54-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- Special Counsel Steve Reich said it’s not what he’s found, but what he can`t find, that has him concerned.

“The scope of the data loss here is not anything that I have seen before, and is something that I find deeply worrisome,” Reich said.

The attorney testified before the House Special Investigative Committee Tuesday morning, briefing members on the probe of Utah Attorney General John Swallow that has already cost taxpayers more than $700,000.

Reich said key electronic documents pertaining to the investigation have been lost, wiped and flat-out deleted.

“The missing information appears to be from the time period between 2009 to 2011; a span of time that is highly relevant to the committee’s work,” Reich said.

Reich said the hard drives from Swallow’s old office computer and laptop have been erased, as well as his PDA and cell phone.

But can forensic computer specialists recover the information?

“It depends on how you do it,” said Pete Ashdown, president and founder of Xmission, an Internet service provider in Salt Lake City.

Ashdown said it’s common practice for a business or office to erase, or wipe, a computer hard drive between users.

“If you have done a secure erasure, they cannot recover the information,” Ashdown said.

And the information on Swallow’s broken personal computer may also be irretrievable.

“Hard drives have a high failure rate,” Ashdown said. “And when they fail, usually you cannot recover what`s on them.”

Except in the case of a mechanical failure, when Ashdown said a data lab can typically retrieve the information, although at a very high cost.

The claim by Swallow`s staff that emails and calendar items were lost when the state switched servers is entirely plausible.

“Don`t attribute to conspiracy what can be attributed to incompetence,” Ashdown said. “It`s very hard to keep a full network of computers continually backed up and continually set up in the proper way. Mistakes happen.”

Even Reich admitted to lawmakers there may be an innocent explanation for all the data lost, wiped or deleted by Swallow’s office.

“I leave open the possibility there are benign explanations for each of the things that we are seeing,” Reich said. “But taken as a whole, taken across the board, what we have learned from our investigation should be very troubling to the committee.”