Hired Hacker Who Named Clients Now Fears Retaliation

The New York Times/July 8, 2015

By Matthew Goldstein

It’s not uncommon for a criminal defendant in a white-collar case to cooperate with prosecutors in hopes of receiving a lenient sentence. But it is less common for a defendant to then seek to keep that cooperation secret out of fear of retaliation from those he named.

Yet that appears to have been the case with Eric Saldarriaga, a private investigator in New York who was sentenced on June 26 to serve up to three months in federal prison for hacking into dozens of personal email accounts.

A year before he pleaded guilty, Mr. Saldarriaga tried, in vain, to cooperate with federal authorities in a bid to avoid prison time. In the end, prosecutors decided the information he provided was not enough to pursue charges against anyone else, according to court filings in the case that were unsealed on Tuesday.

What seemed to trouble Mr. Saldarriaga the most in the weeks since his guilty plea was that the full extent of his efforts to help authorities might become public and prompt at least one of his former clients to possibly retaliate against him.

“I now fear for the safety of my family,” Mr. Saldarriaga wrote in a previously redacted letter to Judge Richard J. Sullivan of the United States District Court in Manhattan just days before his sentencing.

Mr. Saldarriaga’s efforts at cooperation began shortly after federal authorities first approached him in March 2014 and said they had evidence that he paid an overseas hacker-for-hire firm to illegally obtain passwords to email accounts for dozens of individuals. Mr. Saldarriaga agreed to help the authorities and recorded several phone calls with one person who had hired him to hack into several personal email accounts, the unsealed court filings show.

The unidentified person that Mr. Saldarriaga taped the phone calls with is described by federal authorities as being one of his main clients in the filing. The client is said to be someone who has done investigations on behalf of the Church of Scientology, said people briefed on the case but not authorized to speak publicly.

Nothing in the newly released filings publicly identifies the church as being associated with Mr. Saldarriaga. But the day before he was sentenced, federal prosecutors filed victim impact statements from two people who have been outspoken critics of Scientology and were told by federal authorities that their email accounts may have been illegally hacked by Mr. Saldarriaga.

Federal authorities, who had requested that Mr. Saldarriaga be sentenced to a term of six months in prison after his guilty plea, did not explain in the unsealed documents why they found the private investigator’s evidence insufficient.

As his sentencing approached, Mr. Saldarriaga grew increasingly worried that if his attempted cooperation became public, his former client might come after him or his family. In his letter to the judge, he expressed concern about the coverage of his case in The New York Times and that information he had provided to authorities had been leaked to the press.

Federal prosecutors also took note. A few days before sentencing they sent a confidential letter to Judge Sullivan suggesting that Mr. Saldarriaga’s personal safety might be in jeopardy. Daniel Noble, a prosecutor working for Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said authorities had no evidence of a specific threat but did not discount Mr. Saldarriaga’s concerns. Citing the potential for retaliation, Mr. Noble and Mr. Saldarriaga’s lawyer, Peter Brill, redacted most references to his efforts at cooperation from any court filings.

Judge Sullivan met privately with Mr. Noble, Mr. Saldarriaga and Mr. Brill in his chambers just before the public sentencing. Judge Sullivan wanted to discuss whether the threats were substantial enough to keep secret the details of Mr. Saldarriaga’s cooperation.

During the 20-minute closed-door conference, Mr. Saldarriaga told Judge Sullivan that the person he had sought to gather evidence on “has the means and motive and the opportunity financially to do anything, and to cause great distress to my family.” He also expressed concern that another person he provided information to authorities about had “ties in foreign governments.”

Judge Sullivan said he was sympathetic, but said there was a presumption that court proceedings and court filings should be public. The judge said a fear of retaliation is not enough to warrant keeping a person’s efforts at cooperation out of the public record.

“It’s not enough to imagine,” said Judge Sullivan, according to the transcript of the proceeding. “People cooperate against insider trading defendants who have access to a lot of money, presumably, and yet there’s no articulable basis to think that they are going to retaliate in any way.”

The proceeding ended with Judge Sullivan ordering the unsealing of the redacted filings as well as the transcript of the private meeting. The judge said, however, that the “specific names” of any clients that Mr. Saldarriaga had provided evidence against could remain private.

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