A former Cleveland Public Power employee admitted Wednesday to federal charges that accused him of trying to steal sensitive information from computers that controlled the city’s power grid.
John Pelton, 55, pleaded guilty during a virtual hearing in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Tom Parker in Cleveland to charges of attempting to access a protected computer and obtain information, a misdemeanor, and lying to FBI agents, a felony.
U.S. District Judge David Ruiz will sentence Pelton on Nov. 16. He faces a range from probation to about two years in prison. Parker allowed Pelton to remain free on a personal bond until the hearing.
“Mr. Pelton made a career-ending mistake and compounded that by not telling the truth when questioned,” his attorney, Michael Goldberg, said after the hearing. “He had no intent to harm anyone, and he blames no one but himself. We will explain all of the circumstances and motivations to the court at sentencing.”
Pelton was the utility’s chief electric transmission officer when he was fired in February 2021 during a city internal investigation into a separate matter.
In court records, prosecutors said Pelton went on eBay and bought two keyloggers— devices that secretly record every time someone hits a button on a particular computer. He installed the devices in order to obtain other administrators’ usernames and passwords to access features that he wasn’t authorized to use, according to portions of the plea agreement read during the hearing.
Pelton installed the keyloggers on two CPP computers on Jan. 12, the day before city officials placed him on administrative leave in an internal city investigation into Pelton’s Facebook posts.
He installed one device on a computer in the control room, a secured part of the utility’s operations that only nine others had access to, according to the plea agreement. The other keylogger was installed on a computer that is used in the delivery of CPP’s services.
The computers could turn power on or off and, if used incorrectly or inappropriately, could disrupt or damage the power grid, court records said.
The keyloggers recorded 16 million keystrokes and could send information to another device with wireless internet connections and Pelton wouldn’t have to physically be inside the building to retrieve that information.
When FBI agents questioned him on May 24, 2021, Pelton said that he didn’t know what keyloggers were, had never researched them and didn’t remember buying them, the plea agreement said.
City officials fired Pelton on Feb. 4, 2021, after a human resources investigation found he took photos of CPP’s Security Control and Data Acquisition computer screens in the dispatch room. He posted the photos to a closed Facebook group and included information about CPP’s security operation and infrastructure, according to city records.
Pelton said during his disciplinary hearing that he shared the information on a group of about 2,300 former Navy operators and only spoke about Cleveland’s security and control technology, which was the oldest in the country. He also said he was unaware what he did was wrong, according to city records.
CPP spokeswoman Shelley Shockley refused to say when the last time the utility updated the security system and only would say it’s in compliance with federal regulators. Cleveland City Councilman Brian Kazy, the chair of the city’s utilities committee, said the system was updated last year.
Pelton was hired by the city in 2017 and made nearly $91,000 a year, according to city records. Pelton said during Wednesday’s hearing he now works as an interstate truck driver.
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