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Sunday, August 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Two charged in May theft of VA laptop

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Police in Montgomery County, Md., charged two men Saturday with felonies in the May 3 theft of computer equipment from the home of a Department of Veterans Affairs analyst, a case that blossomed into the largest data breach in federal government history.

Police arrested Jesus Alex Pineda, 19, and Christian Brian Montano, 19, both of Rockville, Md., late Friday in a McDonald's restaurant and charged them Saturday with first-degree burglary and theft of more than $500.

Montano also was charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree burglary and conspiracy to commit theft of more than $500.

A juvenile in custody on an unrelated charge is also a suspect in the crime, police said.

The stolen laptop and external hard drive contained the unencrypted names, Social Security numbers and birth dates of about 19.6 million veterans and active-duty military members and the names and birth dates of about 6.9 million other veterans and service members.

Police depicted the suspects as ordinary thieves responsible for a string of other local burglaries. Police said the suspects did not target the laptop and hard drive that were stolen along with jewelry and cash.

"As far as we can determine, this was a random burglary," Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger said at a news conference. "They did not know what they had."

Authorities recovered the laptop and hard drive in late June when a person who had the equipment contacted U.S. Park Police after seeing news accounts and notices of a $50,000 reward offered by Montgomery police.

FBI officials said in July that forensic tests on the stolen equipment gave them "a high degree of confidence" the sensitive data had not been accessed.

The Bush administration then withdrew an offer of free credit monitoring for a year to the millions of affected veterans and military personnel, a service that would have cost about $160 million.

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Key information that led to Friday's arrests came from a phone tip received by the FBI in the past few days, Manger said.

The three are suspected in at least five other burglaries, police said, and two of them have criminal records.

Manger said Saturday that it is uncertain whether the tipster who led police to the laptop — or anyone else — will receive the $50,000 reward.

Despite recovery of the equipment, the recent arrests were "absolutely critical," said Jim O'Neill, assistant inspector general for the VA.

Although the VA analyst, identified in VA documents as Wayne Johnson, notified his bosses and Montgomery police of the theft right away, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson was not told until May 16. And Nicholson did not tell the public until May 22.

The ensuing scandal prompted a wave of congressional hearings that put Nicholson in the political hot seat and led to the resignations or departures of at least five senior VA officials, including the analyst's supervisor and department head.

Nicholson has said the department will fire Johnson, 60, who earns $91,407 to $118,828 a year and who has worked for the VA for more than 30 years. Johnson is challenging the firing under civil-service rules. Johnson and his attorney couldn't be reached for comment.

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