As part of his job with the Lone Star Fugitive Task Force in Uvalde, Pena, 48, had access to a database that allowed users to search for the location of cellphones. While the database was meant to be used only for legitimate law enforcement work, Pena used it “numerous times … to obtain location data associated with the cell phones of his personal associates, including persons with whom Pena was or had been in a personal relationship and their spouses,” according to the indictment.
He was charged with 11 counts of criminally obtaining telephone recordings, two counts of making a false statement and one count of tampering with a recording. He made a brief appearance Monday in federal court and was released.
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Officials say that when Pena was confronted and questioned in 2017 by the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s Office, he lied and claimed he was not using the database for personal reasons. He reportedly said he occasionally accessed the database to help friends find their cellphones or to assess whether the system was working properly.
“I did, tests, tests on my phone,” Pena told officers, according to the indictment. “The times I’ve used it, again, to find a lost or misplaced phone.”
When asked specifically if he used the system to find the location of a family member, friend or former girlfriend, Pena said no, which prosecutors allege is a lie.
After being questioned by the officers, Pena allegedly arranged a face-to-face meeting with one of the people whose phone he found and persuaded her to sign a document stating that she had given Pena permission to search. his phone information. The indictment alleges that the written statement was false and intended to obstruct the investigation into Pena’s conduct.
It was not immediately clear – and officials would not comment – why it took nearly five years to charge Pena, during which time he apparently remained a paid employee of the Marshals Service.
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Pena reportedly used a service provided by Securus Technologies, which provides telephone services to prisons but also gave law enforcement the means to track the location of cellphones. The system required law enforcement officials seeking to track the location of a cellphone to upload an official document proving that they were authorized to search for that data.
Prosecutors accuse Pena of circumventing this requirement by uploading documents that had nothing to do with the clearance, including “blank pages, award certificates, a list of justifications for a merit promotion, templates letterhead” and more.
“These documents were unofficial and did not authorize Pena to obtain cell phone location data,” the indictment charges.
Asked about the charges, Securus released a statement saying the company discontinued this tracking system more than four years ago “and permanently discontinued it. Even when it was operational, it was only available to users who had received permission from a law enforcement agency or institution. The tool was built with safeguards and security protocols, but we also relied on the integrity of law enforcement to operate it ethically.
The company said it believes “privacy and security are fundamental…and we will never provide the service again, period.”
Pena did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment, and court records did not mention an attorney representing him. A Marshals Service spokeswoman did not immediately comment on the charges. A spokeswoman for the Office of Inspector General referred the questions to the Department of Justice.