‘Magic keystroke’

Published 8:45 pm Saturday, September 4, 2010

Official defends ‘accidental’ risqué email

An electoral board official accused of sending an inappropriate email to the voter registrar is defending his actions, saying he didn’t mean to send the email to her and it had nothing to do with her dismissal from the post.

David Sylvia, secretary of the city’s three-member, appointed Electoral Board, also says ex-voter registrar Sharon Thornhill attempted to use the email as “blackmail” to get a good performance evaluation and avoid being forced to resign.

When first contacted for this story on Thursday, Sylvia refused to make a comment. However, after seeing Thornhill’s version of events in the paper on Friday, he called the News-Herald and said he wanted to “clear up some of the mud.”

He now admits sending the risqué email, which included a nude woman having body paint applied over the span of 14 different frames. However, he says he did not intend to send it to everyone who received it.

“This particular email was one that I received at home on my personal computer,” Sylvia said. “I made a very poor decision, and decided to email it to a couple of my friends.”

Sylvia says he chose four friends and hit the send button. It wasn’t until months later, when Thornhill confronted him about the email during her annual performance evaluation, that he realized others had received it, he said.

“I have since found out that my mother got it,” Sylvia said. “How this occurred, whether it was some magic keystroke, or a virus, I don’t know. It certainly was not an intentional email.”

Thornhill received the message at her city email account on April 24 at 10:28 a.m., according to the date and time stamp on copies obtained by the News-Herald. On May 11, Thornhill forwarded the email from her city account to her personal account. On Aug. 26, three weeks after she suddenly left her job, she forwarded it to City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn.

Sylvia insists that the email had nothing to do with Thornhill’s forced resignation. She confronted him about it during her July 22 performance evaluation, he said. He had left the room temporarily, and upon returning was told she had informed the other two board members about the email, entitled “14 Steps to Putting on a Bikini.”

“I immediately knew what she was talking about,” Sylvia said. “I apologized to her as honestly and as deeply as I could. I was absolutely shocked.”

That’s when Thornhill gave Sylvia what she called an “ultimatum” — she wanted a good evaluation.

“I asked her if she knew she was talking blackmail,” Sylvia said. “She said it didn’t matter.”

After the meeting concluded, Sylvia said, the three Electoral Board members went to the city’s human resources department and notified their liaison there of what had happened. Sylvia says he also notified Clerk of Circuit Court Randy Carter, the chairs of both Suffolk political parties and the State Board of Elections.

“I made every contact that I could think of,” Sylvia said. “No one expressed any concern that I had done anything that was blatantly inappropriate.”

On Aug. 6, the Electoral Board visited the voter registrar’s office and coerced Thornhill into signing a paper saying she would resign.

“That was totally and completely because of job performance,” Sylvia said, noting that complaints had been filed against Thornhill by workers in the office and by the State Board of Elections.

“A great deal of pressure was on the Electoral Board from the State Board,” Sylvia said. “We had already decided there had to be a change in the office.”

Sylvia suggested that Thornhill could have overheard the board’s discussion of her dismissal through the thin walls in the office, and that is why she brought up the email.

“I cannot, and I will not be intimidated or threatened by anyone,” Sylvia said. “I’m here to make sure the election process continues in a legal, fair and honest way.”

Sylvia also defended keeping Thornhill employed for the last three years, despite negative performance evaluations the whole time.

“It is not something that can be done lightly,” she said. “There has to be valid, documented reasons for that to happen. If you don’t want to do something, it’s hard to pull the trigger and do what you have to do.”