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Alleged saboteur of power grid gained access despite warning

Times Staff Writer

A contract technician accused of sabotaging computers at the agency that controls most of California’s electrical grid was able to enter the building and high-security inner rooms -- allowed in by electronic card readers and a handprint scanner -- even though his employer had warned days earlier that he should be denied access to the facility, authorities said.

Lonnie Charles Denison, a 32-year-old computer specialist, has a “history of mental illness, drug abuse and alcohol issues” that could make him a danger to the community and to himself, a prosecutor said at a court hearing Friday. Denison has used methamphetamines since age 23, the prosecutor said.

Sunday’s incident at the California Independent System Operator has raised alarms among state and federal energy regulators.

“Something failed,” said Erik Saltmarsh, executive director of the California Electricity Oversight Board, which is legally charged with reviewing Cal-ISO’s control of about three-quarters of the state’s electric transmission system. “It’s bad. It clearly flags that there is a problem either in the procedures” or the way they were carried out.

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Denison was arrested by the FBI on Wednesday and charged with attempted destruction of an electrical facility. Around midnight Sunday, authorities said, he broke a glass seal and pushed an emergency electricity shut-off button, plunging the Cal-ISO building in Folsom, a Sacramento suburb, into darkness and crashing computers used to communicate with the power market.

Twenty computer technicians worked for seven hours to restore the systems.

The act caused no blackouts but could have disrupted the western United States’ power grid had it happened during hours of peak demand for electricity, such as a summer afternoon, the FBI said in an affidavit that accompanied a criminal complaint filed against Denison.

Engineers at Cal-ISO, a not-for-profit public benefit corporation, manage the flow of electrons through 25,000 miles of transmission lines, delivering wholesale electricity to the state’s three investor-owned utilities, including Southern California Edison Co., and a number of municipal utilities.

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The Cal-ISO incident is being examined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, spokesman Bryan Lee said. The agency has a mandate from Congress to oversee the reliability of the U.S. electrical transmission network.

“Clearly, this is a criminal matter” that the FBI should pursue, Lee said. “But the commission is looking into this matter very seriously within the purview of its regulatory authority.”

The FBI said it also was looking into whether a bomb threat that cleared the Cal-ISO building for five hours Monday was related to Denison’s alleged sabotage.

Denison appeared before U.S. Magistrate Dale A. Drozd on Friday and was released on a $50,000 unsecured bond with the stipulation that he enter an in-patient mental health treatment center. He has not yet submitted a plea.

Cal-ISO is investigating its security procedures. It also is probing personnel screening performed by San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp., which hired Denison. The company is a major federal defense contractor.

According to the FBI affidavit, Denison early Sunday night tried and failed to log on to access the Cal-ISO computer network. However, a couple of hours later he succeeded in gaining physical entry to the building and a room called the Outer Data Center.

The affidavit cites a Cal-ISO information technology technician who told an officer of the Sacramento Joint Terrorism Task Force that Denison’s “security access was suspended at the request of his employer based on an employee dispute.”

But only “some of his access had been pulled,” said Stephanie McCorkle, a Cal-ISO spokeswoman.

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McCorkle said the agency “had absolutely no idea of any past history of mental illness or drug abuse” until the prosecutor discussed Denison’s condition at Friday’s hearing.

Science Applications International declined to comment on Denison other than to say he joined the company Oct. 2 as a system administrator and was no longer an employee.

“We are continuing to cooperate with our customer and the authorities in this investigation of the incidents at the facility,” company spokesman Ronald M. Zollars said.

marc.lifsher@latimes.com


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