Montgomery County officials received two apparently tongue-in-cheek public information requests this week after it was revealed that Bethesda resident Robert Lipman had received more than 200,000 email addresses from county-maintained information and newsletter lists.
Someone claiming to be “Mohammed Abacha – Montgomery County Nigerian Prince” emailed the first request Thursday morning. The “prince” asked the county to post on its Data Montgomery website all emails the county has received from Lipman, the MoCo Voters group he founded and the education information group The Parents Coalition of Montgomery County on its Data Montgomery website.
The second request the county received Thursday was from someone purporting to be “Robert Lipman”—although the real Robert Lipman told Bethesda Beat on Friday he wasn’t aware of the request and that he has not sent any additional public information requests to the county since he asked for the email addresses.
Under county law, the county is required to post on its data website the responses it provides to public information requests.
Lipman, a Westbard area resident who founded the MoCo Voters group after lobbying against a county land use plan for the Bethesda neighborhood, filed the requests earlier this year for email addresses maintained by County Council members for their newsletters and the email addresses of the county’s Paperless Airplane subscribers.
In February and early March, Lipman received digital spreadsheet files listing more than 219,000 email addresses.
The Paperless Airplane list includes 127,726 email addresses and is posted on the data website, while the council members’ email lists include about 92,000 email addresses and was removed from the data website on Monday. Council member Hans Riemer said it was removed because he is working on an amendment to the county’s open data law to protect individuals’ email addresses from being posted online.
The Paperless Airplane list was posted Wednesday. County spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Friday he normally asks a staff member to post a number of public information request responses to the data portal at the same time to be more efficient, but asked that the Paperless Airplane list be posted because of the Bethesda Beat article. He also noted there’s no time requirement under the law that dictates how quickly a response must be posted to the website.
It’s unclear if the removal of the council’s newsletter email address lists violates county law. When asked whether the removal broke the law, County Council legislative attorney Amanda Mihill wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat that county attorneys “cannot share what legal advice they have provided to their clients.”
In his request, the supposed “Nigerian prince” wrote he would like to thank the county for providing the email addresses to Lipman and posting many of them online.
“It is my pleasure to contact each and every single one of these individuals for a business venture of which I intend to establish in Montgomery County,” the prince’s email says. “Though I have not met with you, I believe one has to risk confidence in someone to succeed sometimes in life.”
In what appears to be a pretty obvious parody of internet financial scams, the “prince” says he has access to $13.2 million that his late father deposited “with HSBC in one of the Asia countries, of which he wanted to use for his political reason in Montgomery County before he was assassinated. Now as his son, I have decided to invest these money in Montgomery County for security and political reasons.”
The prince offers 20 percent of the money to anyone who can assist him.
The Nigerian Prince’s PIA request, edited with purple to censor uninvolved parties’ contact information.
The request from the Lipman imposter asked for the phone numbers in the county’s Alert Montgomery system, which the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security uses to provide text and phone call alerts about significant public safety incidents.
The request asked the county to post the phone numbers on the public data portal with the last two digits of each number as “XX” for privacy reasons. The Lipman imposter used Lipman’s real cell phone number in the request and the imposter requested that county officials not hide any of the digits to Lipman’s number.
County spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Friday the county denied the request for the phone numbers for security reasons, but not because the request appeared to be from someone purporting to be Lipman. However, he wondered if the person posing as Lipman could be committing identity theft.
Lipman also informed county officials in an email that was also sent to Bethesda Beat that he did not make the request for the phone numbers and encouraged the county to contact police to see if it amounted to fraud.
“I would be happy to cooperate with the police,” Lipman wrote. “Perhaps the source of the fraudulent message can be traced.”
Lipman also said that since Bethesda Beat wrote about his public information requests he’s received emails, phone calls and voicemails from lenders and he suspects someone has signed him up to be spammed by marketers.
“It’s the price you pay,” Lipman said. “As Aristotle said, to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
He also added that his MoCo Voters group, which seeks to provide election information to county residents, does not plan to use the email addresses it obtained to send individuals information because he later learned email newsletters are more effective when users opt-in to receive them.