By Jon Delano

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Pittsburgh-based EQT Corporation says it was the victim of high tech theft by two former employees shortly before they were fired by the company.

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The largest natural gas producer in Appalachia says it has lots of trade secrets to protect.

In a civil complaint filed in Federal court, EQT claims Jeffrey Lo, a reservoir engineer, maliciously entered EQT Headquarters in Downtown Pittsburgh at 2:32 a.m. to steal trade secrets, eight hours after the company told him to appear at a large group meeting the next day where employees were laid off.

EQT filed a similar civil action in State court against Charles Cunningham, manager of production engineering, alleging he copied hundreds of thousands of documents on a personal external hard drive just before he was laid off.

Neither Lo nor Cunningham could be reached, and EQT and its lawyers, Brad Funari and Efrem Grail, were not available to talk.

But the company did send the following statement from Gareth R. Elliot, director of compliance and communications, at EQT:

“We are committed to protecting EQT’s trade secrets and intellectual property, including EQT’s proprietary data and technologies that are competitively sensitive and would be very valuable to others operating in the Marcellus basin.”

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“Employers definitely need to be more sensitive and aware,” said Janet Manuel, president of the Pittsburgh Human Resources Association, who has no connection to the EQT case.

Given easy access to confidential data through computers, Manuel says giving advance word of firing to employees can be dangerous.

“When we know in advance, we have worked with our respective IT department to cut off access prior to having that private meeting with that respective employee,” she told KDKA money editor Jon Delano on Friday.

Increasingly, that’s why those with access are escorted immediately out of the building.

The actions filed by EQT were strictly civil complaints, an effort to stop these defendants from misusing this information and to recover money.

But if the facts are correct as alleged, human resource officials say these defendants could be subject to criminal charges.

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“Absolutely, they can be charged with a crime,” Manuel said.