Solve the mystery of the Martin County tax collector’s troubles


” Yes ! We are open ! Read the enthusiastic headline on an entry posted last week at Martin County Tax Collector’s Office Website.

The post, under the “important news” tab, went on to say that the collector’s main office and its branches offer a full range of services.

What makes this noteworthy is that the office had not been operating at full capacity for over five weeks.

After the office computers were shut down following an unspecified “security incident” in mid-October, it took just as long to get everything back online.

So, case closed? Moving forward? Is there nothing to see here?

I think we are not there yet.

Keep quiet :Martin County Tax Collector Keeps Low Profile on ‘Network Problem’ and Week-Long Shutdown

Possible cause:Has BlackByte ransomware attacked the tax collector’s office? Maybe not, but no one is sure

Welcome to the news:All branches of the Martin County Tax Collector’s Office are open; Investigation into “security incident” continues

Ruth Pietruszewski, Martin County Tax Collector;  Joseph Tumminelli, Police Chief Stuart;  Thelma Washington, GWCCC Executive Director and Tom Campenni, GWCCC Board Member # 2019.

Residents of Martin County trying to pay their taxes or obtain license plates will apparently not have to deal with the inconvenience or uncertainty that has hampered the operations of the office in recent weeks.

Neither do residents of St. Lucie County, who briefly had to endure longer queues when their tax collector’s office attempted to take some of the slack for Martin County.

Yet some key questions remain unanswered. The most basic: what happened here?

A few days after the office closed, I wrote a column criticizing the tax collector Ruth pietruszewski for not keeping citizens informed of what was going on.

Since then, Pietruszewski and his team have responded to inquiries a little better, although they still haven’t shared much information with the media or the public.

We learned the FBI investigated possible criminal activity related to the closure. Pietruszewski said the FBI asked him to remain silent on the details of this investigation.

In the last text I received from her on Friday, she said the investigation remained “active and open”.

Customers learn about issues with the locked label office at Martin County Tax Collector's offices in Willoughby Commons office buildings, preventing them from updating their license plates on Monday, November 1, 2021 to Stuart.

I can sympathize with the reluctance to share information, but only up to a point.

When I was communications director of the Tennessee Department of the Treasurywe once had a situation where an employee downloaded sensitive data about a group of government pensioners to their personal computer.

My boss, the state treasurer, reported the matter to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, who began to investigate what happened. There were suspicions that the employee may have wanted to access registrants’ personal data for nefarious purposes, such as identity theft.

The TBI told us not to comment on the media during the early stages of the investigation.

From a communications manager’s perspective, this was a tough request to honor.

Our department has taken immediate action to strengthen security in its offices. And it has made credit checking services available to pension plan registrants who may have become vulnerable to identity theft as a result of the dishonest employee’s actions.

We wanted to let the public know that A) we were not trying to cover up what happened; and B) we were taking appropriate action to resolve the problem.

So we pushed the BIT to let us release information as soon as we could without compromising the investigation. It happened in days, not weeks or months.

The Martin County Tax Collector's Office for Licenses, Automatic Labels and Titles at the Willoughby Commons office is currently closed, preventing customers from updating their number plates, titles and licenses in this office on Monday November 1, 2021 in Stuart.

I understand the TBI is not the FBI. And I understand that the circumstances vary from survey to survey.

However, if the FBI waits until the books on this case are closed before releasing any information, this is a departure from standard operating practices.

To cite just one recent example, the FBI did not remain completely silent when it investigated the disappearance and murder of Florida resident Gabby Petito. The agency provided regular updates on the case and search for Brian Laundrie, who was suspected of killing Petito.

So why can’t he do something similar in this situation?

It is always difficult to make guesses, but if any criminal activity has taken place here it seems plausible that it was someone trying to hack into the tax collector’s files.

If you’ve registered a vehicle or applied for a Martin County driver’s license, you’ve provided the tax collector’s office with exactly what kind of information (social security number, date of birth, etc.) that could be used to forge your identity.

If a hacker has obtained this information, don’t you have the right to know so that you can take action to protect yourself and your property?

What if a hacker has tried unsuccessfully to obtain this information, don’t you have the right to know that too?

TCPalm Columnist Blake Fontenay

When the FBI first began investigating this case, there may have been an element of surprise that its agents could use to their advantage.

At this point, however, the FBI’s involvement is a less well-kept secret than Governor Ron DeSantis’s ambitions for a higher political office.

If the hacker (s) are unaware that G-men and / or G-women are on their trail now, it seems highly unlikely that they will find out until they are equipped with handcuffs and prison suits.

I’m willing to admit that there is a lot that I don’t know about this situation, so my opinion may change as more facts come to light.

However, it seems likely that one of three scenarios applies:

1) There has been criminal activity and the criminal (s) remain at large. 2) There were criminals, but they were caught and the threat was neutralized. Or 3) There were no criminals and therefore no danger exists.

In any of these scenarios, do I see a benefit in keeping citizens in the dark.

This column reflects the opinion of Blake Fontenay. Contact him by e-mail at [email protected] or at 772-232-5424.


Esther L. Steinbach