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2 accused of sabotaging traffic lights

The high-ranking L.A. city transit engineers allegedly disabled signals at four busy corners Aug. 21 during a union contract dispute.

January 06, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Who greenlighted this traffic-signal project?

That was the question flashing through the traffic-control center beneath Los Angeles City Hall on Friday as two high-ranking city transportation engineers were accused of sabotaging intersection signal lights during a labor union contract dispute four months ago.

They have been charged with multiple counts of illegally hacking into traffic-control computers and disabling signals at four busy intersections Aug. 21.

Gabriel Murillo, 37, and Kartik Patel, 34, allegedly rigged computers to disconnect signal lights at Sky Way at World Way at Los Angeles International Airport, Coldwater Canyon Avenue at Riverside Drive in Studio City, Glendale Boulevard at Berkeley Avenue in Echo Park, and 1st and Alameda streets in Little Tokyo.

According to prosecutors, the pair changed computer codes to prevent transportation managers from reprogramming and reactivating the traffic lights for four days. No accidents were reported during the outage.

Authorities said the hacking occurred on the eve of a two-day job action by members of the Engineers and Architects Assn., which represents 7,500 city workers. About 1,500 union members walked off their jobs

"This amounts to sabotage and [should] not be tolerated no matter what the dispute or cause," Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a statement.

Union officials were unavailable for comment Friday. Robert Aquino, executive director of the Engineers and Architects Assn., did not return repeated calls. But in an Aug. 21 interview with The Times about the pending two-day strike, Aquino noted: "Los Angeles is not going to be a fun place to drive."

Murillo and Patel also could not be reached for comment Friday. They were scheduled to surrender and be arraigned on the felony charges Monday, said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office. Bail of $25,000 each is being recommended.

Murillo is charged with one count each of unauthorized access of a city computer and identity theft. Patel is charged with one count of unauthorized access of a computer and four counts of unauthorized disruption or denial of computer services.

According to Friday's criminal complaint, Murillo assumed the identity of Sean Skehan, principal transportation engineer for the city's Bureau of Transportation Design and its Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control Center, to obtain access to the restricted computers. The control center is at the highly secure Emergency Operations Center beneath City Hall East.

Traffic engineers in the center operate a sophisticated computerized network that monitors road conditions with cameras and pavement sensors. The engineers can react to traffic jams by adjusting signal timing to improve the flow of vehicles through intersections.

Skehan was unavailable for comment. But those on duty at the control center voiced shock at the criminal charges as they struggled Friday to deal with a spate of traffic signal outages across the city.

"Today's been crazy. It's the wind. It wasn't sabotage, that I can be sure of," said one control room worker, who asked not to be identified.

Verej Janoyan, a senior traffic engineer, said he knew there was "an ongoing investigation" into August incidents. But "my heart just dropped, just now hearing this," Janoyan said when told of the charges.

John Fisher, assistant general manager of transportation operations for the city, said access to the traffic computers is tightly limited.

"We have controls in place to limit the number of individuals who have access," he said. "We have ongoing procedures in place to learn of actions taken by those who have accessed the system."

Investigation of the August incident was handled by the computer crimes unit of the Los Angeles Police Department's Commercial Crimes Division. Charges were filed by the district attorney's newly formed High Tech Crimes Division.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was branded a "scab" by Engineers and Architects Assn. leaders for announcing that he intended to cross picket lines if necessary to get to work, had no comment on the charges, according to aides.

Late last month, the city's five-member Executive Employee Relations Committee -- which includes Villaraigosa -- and union leaders reached agreement on a new contract that would provide a 9% raise over the next three years. The deal awaits approval by union members, who are paid an average of $74,500 a year.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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