When Mary Jo Barber took a list of client names home from her job managing Hawley Printing Services, a tiny Wheat Ridge printing press, she thought she was doing the out-of-state owners a favor -- balancing the books and helping Leslie and James Cowley complete the sale of their company to a rival firm.
In fact, for nine years, Barber paid the bills, signed the checks and did so many other things for the company -- a lot of it from her home -- that many of Hawley's clients thought she owned the place.
After Hawley was sold, in the spring of 1999, Barber moved on to a job at another printing company and says she forget about the old paperwork, the client list and the computer zip cartridges with old client artwork and that she had at home. "I didn't think it mattered," she says. "It never occurred to me that I shouldn't have any of that. I was so used to having all those materials with me for years. No one questioned me. It was like air and water to me."
Now it's become a lot more. On April 26, Barber was convicted of one count of stealing trade secrets, a misdemeanor, and one count of computer crimes, a felony.
She believes her case could set a bad precedent in the state with ramifications for people who work at home. "It's dangerous," she says. "If you're in marketing or sales, you're dead. The only mistake I made was leaving paperwork. It's not like I hacked in and transferred funds or gained services through deceit. I'm now a felon in this state. That isn't right."
The situation that would lead to Barber's convictions began in July 1998 when Barber herself tried to buy the company from the Cowleys. In anticipation of the deal, she purchased an Iomega Jaz drive to back up client artwork and turned the drive over to a designer to whom she planned to contract work. But Barber and the Cowleys, who live in Park City, Utah, couldn't reach an agreement, and Barber resigned from the company in February 1999. She agreed to stick around through March 15, however, to help the couple sell the business -- or, more precisely, the client list -- to Sandra Aldrich, the owner of Centennial Graphics, a small business in Lakewood.
Aldrich paid the Cowleys $25,000 up front; the rest, about $95,000, according to court documents, was contingent on whether Centennial could maintain the yearly earnings Hawley had generated in the last four years -- about $450,000 a year. Centennial performed dismally in the year after the sale, however, bringing in just over $130,000 and reducing the amount the Cowleys made from the sale by more than $60,000. Aldrich says that out of a few hundred Hawley clients, Centennial retained only 34. "I didn't expect to get them all, but I would have liked to have had a fair opportunity to call on them," Aldrich says. "I didn't have that opportunity."
Barber was the clear target for blame. Aldrich says Barber used the information she had at home to get to Hawley clients before Centennial could. "We sent letters to all of them, but they got her letter before they got our letter. It's real hard to compete when she knows what your price is."
Barber acknowledges that when she relocated to her new job, at Denver's Independent Press, she sent courtesy letters to about a hundred Hawley clients, but she insists that she didn't need the client list or any of the computer files to do it. She also visited former clients. One of the first of these was the Aspen Institute, where she quickly secured a work order worth $1,500. A week later, when Aldrich made a similar visit to the Aspen Institute, she noticed that proofs from the Independent job were already there. The Cowleys and the police were notified shortly thereafter.
Leslie Cowley says that when Aldrich took over the company, certain clients' files were empty -- no artwork, no plates, no negatives. "This was a theft," she says. "A serious theft. Something thought out and something executed. We could not understand. She got paid well. She got profit sharing. I cared a lot about her. I completely trusted her. It's crummy all the way around. Nothing good came out of it."
Says Aldrich, "If someone walks out of a company, they know in their head who the clients are and who they've been calling on. What you can't do is download all the data off a computer. She had no right to download all that stuff and take it with her. She took everything she needed to continue doing business with them."
According to Colorado law, anyone using a computer or computer network to defraud or obtain "money, property or services by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations or promises" commits a computer crime.
Although Barber did have the information, she denied in court that she used it to undercut Aldrich. The Jefferson County Court jury disagreed. "[They] had no problem finding against her," James Cowley says.
In addition, Barber was convicted of stealing trade secrets, which, according to the Colorado Revised Statutes, are something that is of value and is secret. But Barber says no one ever quibbled with her practice of taking information home and no one asked for it back when she left the company.
"The operative word in 'trade secret' is 'secret,'" says Les Berkowitz, a Denver lawyer who specializes in Internet law. "The step a client often fails to take is to maintain a secret. If people have relatively free access to the information, it probably isn't a trade secret."
"To me, a trade secret is something you've developed or know how to do that the rest of the business doesn't know how to do," adds Cindy Bogle, president of PDG Pre-Press, a former Hawley client. As for client lists, while Bogle says she wouldn't want hers passed out all over town, she says anyone could walk in her store and see job orders to some clients sitting in plain view. "We're all in the industry. You can find us in the phone book; you can find us through referral."
She also points out that Centennial shouldn't have assumed it would get the business of Hawley clients just because it had a list of names. "Everyone was used to working with Mary Jo [Barber]. They had personal contact with her and liked doing business with her," she says. In a letter to Judge George Lohr, who is handling the sentencing, another former Hawley client wrote that "Centennial made no effort to pursue our business, but complained bitterly when companies like ours contacted Ms. Barber to handle our printing needs."
Kimberly Sparks, Barber's current boss at Independent, also wrote a letter to the judge supporting Barber. "I am horrified that the criminal justice system has done this to Ms. Barber," she wrote. "She is a decent, hardworking, and honest individual." Sparks added that while Barber's possession of the old records may have shown a lack of judgment, "it certainly does not constitute an intent to defraud anyone or anything."
On July 21, the Cowleys and Aldrich will have the chance to argue for restitution. James Cowley doesn't expect to receive any, but he says he can live with other employers in Colorado knowing Barber is a convicted felon.
Barber's sentencing date will also be determined that day. The maximum punishment for a computer crime is four to twelve years in prison and a fine of $3,000 to $70,000.
"Probably Mary Jo's biggest fault is that she operated off the hip," says Bogle. "She probably did have stuff she technically should not have had. But when you manage a place seven days a week, you might not think about having it or how valuable it is. I see where everybody who runs a computer today could be liable. So many people work at home. Anyone who had unauthorized files at home could be in trouble."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.