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Ex-airman accused of stealing sensitive government files

By MARK GOKAVI | Dayton Daily News, Ohio (MCT) | Published: November 1, 2014

(MCT) — A Fairborn man faces federal charges of theft of government property stemming from his work for a defense contractor on a top secret project at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

A complaint filed in Dayton's U.S. District Court alleges that John M. Sember, 28, either destroyed or took sensitive files from government computers after he was removed from a project earlier this year. If the information was erased permanently, it could cost taxpayers 1,000 to 2,000 hours of labor and research worth an undetermined amount of money, according to an affidavit.

An FBI agent wrote that there was "probable cause to believe that John M. Sember has mishandled potentially damaging proprietary information, both by destroying the material from work and/or government computers without proper authority or security considerations, as well as potentially downloading the information onto a personally owned computer after no longer having a need to said information."

The former U.S. Air Force officer's attorney said the government's charges against Sember are based on a false impression.

"John Sember is an innocent man," said defense attorney Jon Paul Rion. "At best, there was a misunderstanding. But John had made active efforts prior to any investigation beginning to make sure that any and all information was returned to the government in the safest way possible."

Authorities seized more than 40 items from Sember's home after executing a search warrant. Sember's trial date is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 15, although his attorney said it likely would moved to May.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dwight Keller said, at this point in the case, he would not comment.

An unsealed search warrant affidavit written by an FBI special agent has some information redacted about Sember's role for a Dept. of Defense contractor.

The document alleges that Sember  once a commissioned officer working at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) before he resigned from the Air Force in early 2013  worked as the lead electrical engineer and did the circuitry and wiring for a project when the Air Force asked the defense contractor that Sember be removed.

A supervisor said Sember generally performed well at work, but was "strong-headed" and that if Sember didn't like someone's work on a project, he would "tear it apart" and build it back up from scratch, the document states. It also said that by last fall, "things were getting contentious."

Sember tried to get back into the facility by swiping his badge six times after his badge access card was deactivated March 14, the document states. He then allegedly contacted a Senior Airman to let him in, and Sember "grabbed some circuit board off a desk and searched a couple things on a computer."

After receiving a March 16 email to return his equipment, Sember returned his laptop computer and external hard drive to an IT employee on March 18. On March 21, Sember had a telephone conversation with human resources and the legal department. The document states, "Sember admitted he had destroyed all the data on his issued computers and hard drive" and that it was common practice. Sember allegedly said, "If they don't need me then they don't need my data."

Rion said that comment was taken out of context and that the government already had all the data, adding that Sember even contacted a civil attorney to figure out how to return the data.

"There was no attempt to do anything by John Sember except for to return the property and the data to the appropriate people," Rion said. "It's a complicated chain of command when it comes to private contractors performing government work. It's not necessary your supervisor who is authorized to receive the information that a person's worked on."

After leaving his defense contractor job, Sember enrolled as a graduate student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Dayton. UD's Vision Lab, also known as the Center of Excellence for Computer Vision and Wide Area Surveillance Research, has a collaboration with defense contract work.

"We understand the charges against graduate student John Sember do not involve any work at the university," UD officials said via email. "We have no additional information to release about him."

The Vision Lab's website said it "develops new algorithms and architectures for real-time applications in the areas of signal processing, image processing, computer vision, pattern recognition, artificial neural networks and bio-mimetic object-vision recognition."

"Any government offense is significant and John is concerned that this misunderstanding has been completely taken out of context," Rion said. "John would not settle this case on any terms."

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(c)2014 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)
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