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Cities, county still reeling in wake of cyberattack

by Lynn LaRowe | January 10, 2021 at 4:14 a.m. | Updated January 10, 2021 at 4:24 a.m.

TEXARKANA, Texas - As multiple agencies in both Texarkanas and Bowie County remain crippled by a ransomware attack discovered more than a month ago, frustration at a lack of information and progress grows among officials and personnel.

The attack on Texarkana Water Utilities, which handles information technology services for both the cities of Texarkana, Texas, and Texarkana, Arkansas, as well as Bowie County, Texas, was discovered Dec. 6. Agencies including the Bowie County Sheriff's Office; Texarkana Texas Police Department; Texarkana Arkansas Police Department; Bowie County District Attorney's Office; Bowie County District Clerk's Office; Bowie County Clerk's Office; Bowie County probation; Bowie County Justices of the Peace; and multiple other offices have been seriously impacted by the cyber attack.

"At this point I have no knowledge from the county judge's office other than a short note about the ransomware," Bowie County Justice of the Peace Nancy Talley said. "I'm in the dark like everyone else."

Bowie County Judge Bobby Howell said a criminal investigation into the matter is ongoing and that the county has been advised to refrain from issuing public statements by a Pennsylvania law firm.

"Be patient. We will put some information out when the time is right," Howell said.

Howell said the process of "rebuilding the network" is ongoing though he lamented one would need a "crystal ball" to know when digital processes and infrastructure would be restored and whether data has been irretrievably lost.

"It's a complex organization," Howell said.

Howell was reluctant in interviews this week to reveal the name of the law firm advising the county and has declined to provide the Gazette with a copy of the county's relevant insurance policy. Shortly after 6 a.m. Thursday morning Howell texted contact information for the Mullen Coughlin firm of Devon, Pennsylvania, to Gazette staff. The firm's website states it specializes in data privacy and incident response services.

A representative of Mullen Coughlin did not respond to a request for comment.

Bowie County Emergency Management Coordinator Lance Hall did not respond to calls from the Gazette this week other than a text message response Tuesday stating he was on a webinar and would respond when finished.

The attack occurred during the holiday season as the rate of COVID-19 infections and resulting strain on the local healthcare system led to increased restrictions and warnings from public health officials. According to officials, an outbreak of the coronavirus among TWU information technology staff has contributed to the slow pace of repairs. An outside vendor which services an essential record-keeping system cannot physically come to Bowie County to work on the system because of the pandemic and will not connect to the system remotely because of concern their equipment could become infected with the ransomware which has hobbled local agencies.

Officials not authorized to speak publicly about the breach said the county has removed and erased desk top computers, lap top computers and other digital media storage devices. According to multiple officials, computers at the Bi-State Justice Building were removed from offices accessed via a master key. Instead of "scanning" the computers for malicious software the equipment was wiped clean, officials said.

"They don't want anyone to know how bad it is. This is ridiculous. It's been a month," an official said.

Among the offices housed in the Bi-State in downtown Texarkana are those for both Texarkana police departments, Bowie County Sheriff's Office, Bowie County adult probation, two Bowie County justices of the peace, district and municipal courts, judges for both Texas and Arkansas and more.

Bowie County Clerk Tina Petty said she closed her office at the courthouse in New Boston, Texas, this week because of the cyber attack. Petty and deputy clerks are working to record time- and date-sensitive real estate records for the month of December. The county clerk's office has been unable to issue marriage licenses, birth certificates or death certificates since the breach.

Other record keeping functions of Petty's office, including those related to mental health, guardianship and probate matters are currently on hold because of the cyber attack though the office is accepting paper filings when needed.

"We really pride ourselves in taking care of our customers, the public, and it's just hard not being able to do what we do," Petty said.

Texarkana, Arkansas, City Manager Kenny Haskin said internet has been restored to city hall.

"Some of us are still without a computer because they're still cleaning those out," Haskin said.

The Bowie County District Clerk's Office, which manages criminal case records, divorce records and civil case records, for example, is accepting paper filings from attorneys but digital records remain unavailable. A system used by the district clerk, district attorney and multiple law enforcement agencies is currently inaccessible.

The Bowie County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, commonly referred to as probation, has been less affected than some agencies, an official said. Software used to manage caseloads and offender information was not impacted.

Bowie County District Attorney Jerry Rochelle said that his office's practice of maintaining paper files in addition to digital records has enabled the office to continue operating, albeit more slowly.

"If some information is ultimately irretrievable, we will re-investigate, re-interview witnesses, where needed," Rochelle said. "We're going to do whatever it takes. We're not giving up on these cases. It's all hands on deck, full steam ahead."



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