In the midst of a lawsuit that has spread scandal across Fullerton, catching the attention of media outlets across Southern California, one man has remained central from the beginning: Joshua Ferguson.
A former retail worker who now faces charges of hacking secret documents from the city of Fullerton, Ferguson is a tour de force of dissent within the local community. For the past several years, he has remained an active writer of the blog the “Friends for Fullerton’s Future”, a publication devoted to transparency between city and citizens.
Tall and with a sprawling beard, he speaks with an unshakable conviction to his principles. He is the first to admit his views are extremely opinionated that will most likely piss a lot of people off. However unfounded his views may appear to some, Ferguson defends them with precision.
Such an intense outlook is not surprising, as the outcome of the lawsuit remains tenuous.
Ferguson claims Fullerton’s lawsuit is retaliatory, after he filed a public records lawsuit against the city on Oct. 10, for allegedly failing to produce police misconduct records required by law.
Since then, Ferguson and the city of Fullerton have been stuck in a lock-step legal battle, as the city argues Ferguson hacked into their server using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and Tor software. He staunchly denies doing so.
“[The city’s] interpretation of hacking is so broad, that if they were to win on the merits it would literally break the internet ,” Ferguson said. “I don’t say this hyperbolically . . . The way public records works is, once it’s public, it’s public to everybody. So the city’s allegation is that if they put a bunch of files to download on the city’s Dropbox, and they also put a bunch of stuff that was only for their attorney, and we allegedly clicked on those other links. And so that was hacking because we didn’t have that expressed authorized permission to access those files.”
The main file in contention is a folder titled “pr1919 – JoshFerguson.zip”, which was added to the city’s Dropbox on May 7, in response to a records request Ferguson made earlier that year. According to the city’s allegations, the folder potentially contained privileged information such as social security numbers and medical records from city employees. A declaration written by cybersecurity expert, Matthew Strebe, alleges that Ferguson downloaded this folder on May 10, though he has never acknowledged doing so.
“Their legal argument is that I went to a URL that they told me about and clicked on a link that had my name on it,” Ferguson said. “And that makes me a hacker . . . Let’s assume the city’s right, let’s assume ‘pr1919 – JoshFerguson.zip’ contained privileged information, it’s a zip file. How would you know that? That’s a file that has my name on it, it’s a zip file which means Dropbox isn’t going to show me what’s in it until after it’s downloaded. But, the city’s argument is that I have to break the law to find out if I’m breaking the law.”
Critics of Ferguson have cast him as a chronic malcontent, a bitter ex-candidate for a City Council position that he lost in 2016. Despite the namesake, he has embraced it, though he considers himself an optimist at heart.
While these two different labels may seem contradictory, Ferguson reiterated that his work on the FFFF blog is rooted in providing a necessary service to the community. Whether it be perusing through zoning laws, public records or the definitions municipal codes, it’s all done with the meticulous attention to detail that most everyday residents would ignore.
“If you’re a pessimist you’ll look at everything and think this all terrible, it’ll never get fixed,” Ferguson continued. “A pragmatist would just ignore it. But I see all these things and think, why is that? When you live in a community, it’s your job to make it better.”
Though, despite the intent, some residents take issue with the blog. Among the criticisms, Ferguson’s writings are a strong and shameless critique of Fullerton City Hall and Fullerton PD. Acknowledging his unfiltered style, Ferguson insists the way he writes is who he is. He phrases his sentences as he phrases his thoughts, citing Kurt Vonnegut as a literary inspiration, abandoning arbitrary tropes to adopt his own way of expression.
“There’s a different way to write for different people, so I just write for me,” Ferguson said. “I don’t put on a mask and sit down to try the phrase things the right way.”
Over the course of several hours, Ferguson presented himself much as one would expect. Highly opinionated with a sharp sense of humor, he has a complex and passionate understanding of the political landscape. Given his forthright and vocal viewpoints, it is no surprise that Ferguson has found himself within the foray of the public eye, whether as a blogger, a political candidate or the subject of the current lawsuit against him.
Critics have been quick to jump on the seeming irony of a man who ran for public office, lost the election and now espouses talk of city corruption. Ferguson’s response was one of humor, telling anecdotes of recycling old yard signs his father used when running for public office and spray painting his name over it.
“The worst thing that could’ve happened to me is if I won that race,” Ferguson said. “One of our local politicians recently said is the only thing that matters in politics is how much money you have in the bank and who you know. That’s not a world I want to partake in. I’d rather sit on the outside and be vocal about what they’re doing.”
He added jokingly, “I’m not going to kiss hands and shake babies to win. I’m just not going to be that guy and that’s what politics is. It’s a popularity contest.”
While perhaps not an obvious politician on the exterior, whether it be using recycled yard signs or the refusal to shave his beard, Ferguson’s interest in politics is inherent. As the conversation evolved away from the lawsuit, he spoke in anecdotes, each told in vivid detail, of a constant pull towards politics, whether he wanted it or not.
“My entire life I’ve been skeptical of authority,” Ferguson said. “Arbitrary authority for the sake of it I’ve always had a problem with since I was a kid. That’s just who I am. I would love the ability to just turn on the TV or sports and ignore politics entirely, but I can’t. It’s not something I can turn off.”
Ferguson equates his skepticism of local bureaucracy because of its ineffectiveness of helping everyday people, be it through corruption or gross incompetence. He believes in individual accountability, without the unnecessary filter of inflated government keeping everything at an arm’s length away.
“I don’t mean to speak ill of people,” Ferguson said of City Hall. “But nobody in there wants to speak up because they have family and pensions. It’s the issue of the ordinary man. It’s somebody who signs himself in a situation and goes, well, I could speak up and do the right thing or I can survive. Most of us just choose to turn a blind eye to corruption and malfeasance. As a taxpayer, who cares about transparency and oversight, every dollar that they take out of their paycheck is something that should be going to something that benefits you and everybody else.”
Despite Ferguson’s public image as an alleged hacker exposing local corruption, he approaches his writing as to any other job. Rather than being a gun-ho activist, his work manifests as a reluctant passion. As such, there is an underlying hesitation as to what he plans for the future, having lost his job in the aftermath of the lawsuit. In spite of it all, Ferguson remained firm that he would do nothing different.
“I’m just a human doing a job,” Ferguson continued. “It’s a cliche, but it’s the adage that the only way evil succeeds is if good men do nothing. That’s why I did all those things, and I might be wrong on certain things. I’m willing to admit that.”
When asked how he saw himself in the grand scheme of the case, whether as a journalist, a whistleblower or simply a concerned citizen, Ferguson did not know how to answer.
“It’s a weird thing to think about,” Ferguson answered after a long pause. “Not very many people think about their hobbies as this defines me, this is who I am. I started out as just a concerned citizen. But it’s weird to think about myself in those terms. What am I? Well, I’m a husband, I’m a father, I’m a movie nerd. I never think about those other things because it’s not my career, it wasn’t like ‘I’m going to be a journalist’. I had never thought about that. It’s hard, I don’t know how to consider myself with these things.”
In spite of the city’s mounting pressure, as the next court date approaches on Mar. 12, Ferguson will remain the cautious optimist.