Lawsuit: eBay tried to “terrorize, stalk, and silence” couple that ran news site

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A bloody pig mask mailed to cyberstalking victims by then-eBay employees.
Enlarge / A bloody pig mask mailed to cyberstalking victims by then-eBay employees.

A former eBay security official who pleaded guilty for his role in a cyberstalking conspiracy has asked for leniency in sentencing while blaming his actions in part on a “drinking culture” at eBay that contributed to his alcoholism.

“eBay had a bar on campus that opened at 3:00 p.m., and drinking was part of the culture, with alcohol present throughout the office space where it was typical to take morning shots of alcohol with co-workers,” a sentencing memorandum for 56-year-old defendant Philip Cooke said yesterday. It was filed in US District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

Cooke was senior manager of security operations for eBay’s Global Security Team, making an annual salary of $185,000 when he played a role in the harassment of a couple that operated a news website. The harassment—in response to news coverage that eBay executives did not like—involved sending threatening messages and deliveries of live cockroaches, a funeral wreath, and a bloody pig mask to the couple’s home in Natick, Massachusetts. Cooke was promoted by eBay to director of security operations and given a raise to $205,000 in June 2020, about 10 months after the cyberstalking campaign began and just before it became public.

Ex-CEO among defendants in suit against eBay

In addition to criminal charges, Cooke is one of the defendants in a lawsuit filed by the harassment victims today. Ina and David Steiner of Natick, who run news website EcommerceBytes, filed the complaint against eBay and the alleged perpetrators of the cyberstalking in the same US District Court. Defendants include eBay itself, former eBay CEO Devin Wenig; former eBay Chief Communications Officer Steven Wymer; and Progressive F.O.R.C.E Concepts (PFC), a security firm that employed Cooke as a contractor before he became a full-time eBay employee.

“eBay… engaged in a coordinated effort to intimidate, threaten to kill, torture, terrorize, stalk and silence the Steiners, in order to stifle their reporting on eBay,” the lawsuit alleged.

The lawsuit said that Wenig and Wymer:

provided the other Defendants with carte blanche authority to terminate the reporting of the Steiners by whatever means necessary, with Defendant Wymer expressing “… I want to see ashes. As long as it takes. Whatever it takes.” Defendant Wymer promised the defendants he would “embrace managing any bad fallout” if the plan went south, further directing, “We need to STOP her.” All of the horrific, vicious and sickening conduct that followed was committed by employees of eBay and PFC, while acting in the scope of their employment under the authority of and for the benefit of eBay and PFC.

Wenig and Wymer were not hit with criminal charges when other eBay employees were arrested and charged last year.

The Steiners’ lawsuit said:

Starting with an online intimidation campaign, the defendants taunted Ina Steiner using a phony Twitter handle pretending to be an eBay seller, and directly threatened her to stop reporting on eBay. The online attacks continued to escalate into threatening and disturbing package deliveries, which included live spiders, cockroaches, a bloody pig mask, a funeral wreath, and a book entitled “Grief Diaries: Surviving Loss of a Spouse” sent directly to David Steiner. These messages and deliveries often were accompanied by ominous simultaneous Twitter messages such as “do I have your attention now, cunt?” Shockingly graphic and vulgar messages, such as “U are sick motha fuckers…and every one will kno! U fuckin cunt ass bitch!” paired with taunting emails and deliveries, including pornography and “Hustler: Barely Legal” magazines sent to the Steiner’s neighbors’ home in David Steiner’s name, to defame the Steiners and attempt to disgrace them and tarnish their reputation within their community.

Some of the conspirators traveled from California to Massachusetts and, among other things, “menacingly stalked and tailed the Steiners in a black van and other rental vehicles, repeatedly circling the block, tracking their every move, and following David Steiner when he left the residence. The defendants even went as far as to attempt to break into the Steiner garage in order to install a GPS tracking device on their vehicle,” the lawsuit said.

eBay issued a statement last year that said an “internal investigation found that, while Mr. Wenig’s communications were inappropriate, there was no evidence that he knew in advance about or authorized the actions that were later directed toward the blogger and her husband.”

eBay provided a statement to Ars today, saying, “The misconduct of these former employees was wrong, and we will do what is fair and appropriate to try to address what the Steiners went through. The events from 2019 should never have happened, and as eBay expressed to the Steiners, we are very sorry for what they endured. As noted by the US Attorney’s Office when this matter first came to light, eBay cooperated fully with the government’s investigation, noting that ‘eBay was extremely cooperative with the investigation in helping state and federal authorities figure out what had happened and collect evidence of the crime.'”

eBay “culture” exacerbated alcohol problem

Cooke’s sentencing memorandum quotes his wife as saying that a “drinking culture at eBay” exacerbated an alcohol abuse problem that got worse after Cooke retired from a career as a captain in the Santa Clara Police Department. Cooke went to work for Progressive F.O.R.C.E Concepts about a year after retiring from police work, and “while the job provided a place to go, a purpose, and new colleagues, it did not resolve his drinking problem.” After taking a full-time job at eBay in April 2019, Cooke “continued to drink heavily, especially with his friends and colleagues.” That was a few months before the cyberstalking campaign began.

“When he returned to eBay as an employee, Phil’s drinking problem became even worse,” his wife said in the memorandum. “I remember one time Phil didn’t come home from work until around 4am the following day. When I asked him where he had been, he said he closed down a bar with his coworkers and slept in his car for a few hours until he felt safe to drive home. I knew Phil and his coworkers had a liquor cabinet at work, but what I didn’t know until later was they were taking shots of alcohol in the morning.”

Cooke’s filing asked the court for a sentence of “home confinement for whatever period the Court believes is necessary, 12 months supervised release, a $200 special assessment, no restitution (as none has been requested), and no fine.”

The filing went on:

As a result of this prosecution, Mr. Cooke has endured extensive punishment already… He lost a job he enjoyed, was devastated by the disappointment he caused his family, and was humiliated in his community—a community he honorably and faithfully served [as a police officer] for 30 years. He has accepted full responsibility for his misconduct, is very remorseful for his bad choices, and wants to do whatever it takes to put his life right. Since accepting responsibility, he has addressed his substance abuse issue, remained sober, and successfully trained to facilitate meetings in a substance abuse program in California for both other substance abusers and also for their friends and families.

The document downplays Cooke’s role in the conspiracy, saying that he didn’t travel to Massachusetts and that he warned fellow employees against some of the worst parts of the plan. The filing said:

While Mr. Cooke joined the plan to engage in a “white knight strategy” to send harassing and anonymous Twitter messages to soften up the victims for eBay’s security team’s assistance, and viewed at least some draft messages in connection with that scheme, he was not personally involved in two or more separate “instances” of harassing the same victim. His involvement is more fairly described as a single “course of conduct” or “a pattern of conduct comprised of 2 or more acts evidencing a continuity of purpose pattern of activity.”

Guilty pleas by five ex-eBay employees

Cooke pleaded guilty in October 2020 to one count of conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and one count of conspiracy to commit witness tampering. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, three years of supervised release, a fine of up to $250,000, and restitution.

Four other former eBay security employees pleaded guilty in October 2020. They are Brian Gilbert, former senior manager of special operations for eBay’s Global Security Team; Stephanie Stockwell, former manager of eBay’s Global Intelligence Center; Stephanie Popp, eBay’s former senior manager of Global Intelligence; and Veronica Zea, a former eBay contractor who was an intelligence analyst in eBay Global Intelligence. Like Cooke, all four pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and conspiracy to tamper with witnesses and are waiting to be sentenced.

While the harassment case involves only eBay, the sentencing memorandum noted a similar drinking culture at Facebook.

“I did not know about the drinking culture at eBay and Facebook,” Cooke’s wife said in a statement quoted in the memorandum. “First, he worked as a contractor for eBay which has a bar on campus where he would drink with his coworkers. They would often leave that bar and go over to a local bar/restaurant and continue drinking until late at night. Then he started working at Facebook where they allowed drinking during the day and would often have free alcohol available.”

Crime and attempted cover-up

In June 2020, the US Department of Justice announced the cyberstalking charges, saying the harassment campaign “included sending the couple anonymous, threatening messages, disturbing deliveries—including a box of live cockroaches, a funeral wreath, and a bloody pig mask—and conducting covert surveillance of the victims.”

“It is alleged that in August 2019, after the newsletter published an article about litigation involving eBay, two members of eBay’s executive leadership team sent or forwarded text messages suggesting that it was time to ‘take down’ the newsletter’s editor,” the DOJ announcement said at the time. Another message from one eBay executive to another allegedly said, “we are going to crush this lady,” referring to Ina Steiner.

The executives were unnamed in court documents at the time but identified in news reports as Wenig and Wymer, with Wymer sending the “we are going to crush this lady” message. In another text, Wenig allegedly told Wymer to “take her down.”

A Department of Justice release issued after Cooke’s guilty plea explained his role in planning and trying to cover up the strange stalking campaign against the Steiners.

“As part of the second phase of the campaign, some of the defendants allegedly sent private Twitter messages and public tweets criticizing the newsletter’s content and threatening to visit the victims in Natick,” the DOJ said. Cooke and other eBay security employees “planned these messages to become increasingly disturbing, culminating with ‘doxing’ the victims (i.e., publishing their home address),” the DOJ said. Charging documents “alleged that the same group intended then to have Gilbert, a former Santa Clara police captain, approach the victims with an offer to help stop the harassment that the defendants were secretly causing, in an effort to promote good will towards eBay.”

The DOJ also alleged that “Cooke and several of the other defendants discussed the possibility of presenting Natick Police with a false investigative lead to keep the police from discovering video evidence that could link some of the deliveries to eBay employees. As the police and eBay’s lawyers continued to investigate, the defendants allegedly deleted digital evidence that showed their involvement, further obstructing what had by then become a federal investigation.”

“Involved in every aspect”

A Silicon Valley Voice article last year stated:

Although Cooke didn’t do any of the dirty work himself, he’s alleged to have been involved in every aspect of the conspiracy from the harassing tweets and messages directed at the victims, to generating ideas for a series of creatively revolting deliveries—including live cockroaches and pornography—to physically stalking the victims, to the attempted cover up in which the pair discussed using Santa Clara police officers.

In a text to Gilbert, Cooke seemed to approve details of the plan to mislead police investigators. “Copy all. Good plan and cover. Brian, important to be convincing so they don’t start looking to find video of who purchased the gift cards,” the text said, according to the Silicon Valley Voice article. Those gift cards were used to send the pig masks and other deliveries to the Natick couple. Cooke’s text also advised finding “a friendly” contact in the local police department.

Cooke “warned” against parts of the plan

Cooke’s sentencing memorandum claimed that “Cooke did not know or understand that he had any authority or responsibility whatsoever to ‘approve’ any of the messages that were sent to the victims,” that he suggested changes to a message to “tone it down,” and that he “warned the group that they should not proceed” with parts of the plan, such as publishing the victims’ address.

In a meeting on August 6, 2019, Cooke “told the group that in California, the messages could not be threatening, and if the victims said ‘stop,’ the messages had to stop,” the memorandum said. “When surveillance was discussed, Mr. Cooke told the group it was dangerous and that they should contact a Massachusetts private investigator and not undertake surveillance themselves.” Cooke also warned them that the use of GPS tracking devices was “illegal in California and possibly illegal in Massachusetts and suggested contacting a Massachusetts private investigator to find out,” the court document said.

Cooke left for a trip to Asia, Europe, and the Middle East on August 8, 2019.

“While overseas where he was traveling alone, Mr. Cooke drank heavily,” the sentencing memorandum said. “On August 20, 2019, while in India, Mr. Cooke saw and responded to a draft Twitter message from Gilbert, to which he acquiesced with a ‘thumbs up emoji’ and later assented to a plan to use multiple accounts to send the message string with a ‘copy all.'”

At this time, “Cooke was unaware that his coconspirators had attempted surveillance in Massachusetts,” and he was not aware that colleagues “might have engaged in role play at the victims’ house” or “directed creation of fake person-of-interest reports to conceal their activities,” the memorandum said.

The memorandum added:

Mr. Cooke often found the information he did receive incredible, not believing that [Senior Director of Safety & Security James] Baugh would actually direct and that others participate in the activities described. Mr. Cooke regularly deleted messages from Baugh because so many of them were entirely inappropriate for the workplace and because he believed Baugh was “messing with him.” In his few months at eBay, Mr. Cooke had received inappropriate and false messages from Baugh, and he had difficulty distinguishing which ones were serious.

Baugh is one of the defendants in the case filed by the Steiners and is facing criminal charges.

Steiners suffered “permanent psychological trauma”

The Steiners’ lawsuit said the couple now suffers from “permanent psychological trauma and damage” because of the cyberstalking. The complaint asked for financial damages, saying that because of “the threats and intimidation and the wire and mail fraud, the Steiners feared for their lives and the conspiracy has hampered their ability to continue at the same level, causing them significant economic damage.”

The Steiners’ lawsuit also says their reputation was damaged. “The various online accounts created by defendants in order to send anonymous tweets and direct Twitter messages left readers and advertisers with the impression that plaintiffs’ news coverage of eBay was biased and unfair,” the lawsuit said. “Thus, plaintiffs’ reputation as objective and impartial journalists and editors and the standing of EcommerceBytes as an unbiased trade publication, suffered as a direct result of defendants’ acts.”

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