At EBay, Lurid Crimes And The Seek For Punishment

“If you’re ever going to take her down .. now could be the time.”

Devin Wenig, the chief govt of the e-commerce firm eBay, texted these phrases to a deputy one summer season afternoon three years in the past. He was upset a couple of story he had simply learn.

Inside days, the author who was the topic of Mr. Wenig’s wrath and her husband had been inundated with offensive materials, together with stay cockroaches and spiders, a funeral wreath, a Halloween masks of a bloody pig face and a handbook on surviving the dying of a partner. Crude and violent Twitter messages had been posted mocking them and revealing their handle. Posts on Craigslist falsely marketed they had been promoting their furnishings or, alternatively, desirous about sexual companions for bondage and sadism. They had been bodily stalked.

All the intimidation and harassment directed at Ina and David Steiner was nameless and fully confounding. They ran a distinct segment publication about eBay and e-commerce from their suburban Boston home. It was a quiet life, with Ina writing the articles and David dealing with the enterprise affairs. They’d no concept why folks ought to abruptly be so livid with them.

Ina and David Steiner spoke to reporters at a courthouse in Boston in July 2021. The couple, who run an ecommerce publication, is suing eBay over the harassment they endured.
Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe by way of Getty Pictures

The assaults had been nonetheless escalating when police traced them again to eBay. Within the wake of these weeks in the summertime of 2019, everybody — together with prosecutors, judges, the victims, the perpetrators and eBay itself — has come to agree {that a} actually dangerous factor occurred on the Silicon Valley icon. The lurid episode is a vivid demonstration of how simply paranoia can bloom in an institutional setting, even at a Fortune 500 firm with 13,000 staff and $10 billion in income.

That is the half nobody agrees about: who was accountable and the way they need to be punished.

Should you’re a low-level worker and consider what the corporate tells you about excessive actions being essential to neutralize a menace, is that an excuse? Should you’re the massive boss and say “take her down” are you off the hook since you didn’t get into particulars? In case your earlier profession concerned doing “arguably illegal” issues, ought to your managers be capable of plead innocence whenever you then exit and do illegal issues? How do you punish an organization, anyway?

These questions can be thought of this fall in three Boston courtrooms. In two of them, members of the eBay safety crew are being sentenced for stalking, witness tampering and different crimes. A complete of seven former staff have pleaded responsible. The primary perpetrator to look earlier than the decide mentioned he was too drunk throughout his transient stint at eBay to know what was occurring. It labored: He acquired a lighter sentence.

Within the last courtroom, one thing extra sophisticated and far-reaching is occurring. The Steiners are suing eBay, Mr. Wenig, who’s now not chief govt, and plenty of others, saying the marketing campaign in opposition to them was not the exercise of a rogue crew however one thing nearer to official firm coverage.

EBay at the moment was on the defensive, below strain from a hedge fund to carry out or else. Public criticism was not one thing the chief govt needed to listen to. It may cost a little him his job. He determined to cease it.

The Steiners are unlikely free speech champions. They began their publication, EcommerceBytes, through the dot-com growth greater than 20 years in the past. It’s each a information web site for on-line sellers and, within the feedback, a discussion board for the retailers to precise their typically cranky opinions — normally about eBay however Amazon and Etsy too. The weblog, with articles like “Ebay CEO Devin Wenig Earns 152 Times That of Employees” and “Ebay Says New Shipping Screen Is Here to Stay,” was extensively learn on the firm’s San Jose, Calif., headquarters.

The Steiners are represented of their swimsuit by Rosemary Scapicchio, a felony protection legal professional well-known in Boston authorized circles for her success with seemingly unattainable instances. Her 17-year effort on behalf of Sean Ellis, a Black man convicted of murdering a white cop, resulted in his freedom and uncovered an online of police corruption. The case is the topic of a 2020 Netflix documentary sequence, “Trial 4.” The Steiners watched it and sought out Ms. Scapicchio.

Charles Krupa/Related Press

“Ina Steiner lived throughout the nation from eBay,” Ms. Scapicchio mentioned. “She was by no means in bother in her life. She by no means raised her voice to anybody. That is somebody you suppose might in some way harm you? And even when eBay actually did suppose this, why didn’t the corporate simply name the police? That’s the best way you deal with issues. You don’t ship your staff with paramilitary coaching to interrupt into their storage so you’ll be able to comply with them round and torture them.”

The Steiners, whose ordeal was the topic of a previous Times story, declined to be interviewed on the recommendation of Ms. Scapicchio. EBay, in an announcement recycled from the summer season of 2021, when the Steiners first filed their swimsuit, mentioned that “the occasions from 2019 ought to by no means have occurred” and that it was “working to do what’s truthful and acceptable to attempt to handle what the Steiners went by.”

The corporate wouldn’t reply any questions together with what “truthful and acceptable” measures it had taken on behalf of the Steiners within the final 12 months. “EBay hasn’t executed something,” their lawyer mentioned.

Accountability, the Steiners say, begins on the high.

Mr. Wenig, in response to their swimsuit, gave eBay safety staff “carte blanche authority to terminate the reporting of the Steiners by no matter means needed.”

They are saying eBay as an organization is responsible too. It “fostered an virtually cultlike environment the place staff weren’t solely anticipated, however required, to satisfy firm directives, no matter criminality,” they write of their grievance.

Mr. Wenig, eBay and prosecutors who declined to criminally cost the corporate reject this notion. EBay says it had no concept it was terrorizing anybody even when the perpetrators had been working from an workplace on its campus and had badges figuring out themselves as eBay staff.

The phrase “take her down” is being taken out of context, Mr. Wenig, a former govt on the information company Reuters, mentioned in a court docket submitting. He acknowledges writing it to Steve Wymer, the director of communications. Mr. Wymer adopted up by writing a sequence of texts to the safety chief, Jim Baugh, eBay’s high security and safety govt. Mr. Baugh oversaw the division that handled something firm leaders noticed as a menace. A handpicked squad would quickly make the Steiners’ life depressing.

Mike Coppola/Getty Pictures
Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg

Mr. Wymer’s first textual content to Mr. Baugh repeats Mr. Wenig’s textual content: “If we’re ever going to take her down … now could be the time.”

Then Mr. Wymer writes: “She is biased troll who must get BURNED DOWN.”

And eventually he says: “I’ll embrace managing any dangerous fallout. We have to STOP her.”

To the informal observer, this may sound like a proper marketing campaign licensed from on excessive. And even eBay, in a presentation it made to prosecutors asking that the corporate itself not be charged with wrongdoing, mentioned it “acknowledges that their improper tone contributed considerably to the crimes.”

Mr. Wenig, who’s represented by Abbe Lowell, provided this protection in court docket papers: He didn’t write these messages to Mr. Baugh, Mr. Wymer did. Moreover, he says that when a chief govt asks his public relations chief for a “take … down,” the “pure inference” is that he’s referring to “taking lawful motion,” like issuing a press launch, not “a sequence of weird felony acts.”

He’s asking for the case in opposition to him to be dismissed. “Devin was shocked and horrified when he realized what occurred to the Steiners and is not any much less so at the moment,” mentioned Andrew Jarrell, a spokesman for Mr. Wenig.

The chief govt resigned a number of weeks after the stalking operation was disclosed to eBay by Massachusetts police. He tweeted on the time that he was not “on the same page” because the board of administrators.

On crucial challenge, nevertheless, Mr. Wenig and the board had been apparently in full settlement: that he left “with out trigger,” which meant he certified for an exit package deal of $40 million. Normal Motors, the place he serves on the board of administrators, describes him as “retired” from eBay.

Mr. Wymer additionally says his “hyperbolic statements” are being mischaracterized. When he wrote to Mr. Baugh saying “I need to see ashes,” he says in a submitting, he was merely referring to the couple’s web site. He wasn’t speaking about “stalking, imprisoning, defaming, vandalizing, trespassing or threatening to kill them.”

Mr. Wymer was “shocked and appalled upon studying of the actions that came about,” his legal professional, Caz Hashemi, mentioned in an electronic mail. He too requested for his case to be dismissed.

EBay fired Mr. Wymer “for trigger” in response to authorized papers, however didn’t on the time publicly acknowledge this. The corporate informed prosecutors that the general public relations govt, who had been at eBay just a few months, was inexperienced and in search of to curry favor with Mr. Wenig. Mr. Wymer, who’s presently president of the Boys & Ladies Golf equipment of Silicon Valley, declined to be interviewed.

Andrew Lelling, the U.S. legal professional for the District of Massachusetts who dealt with the felony case, mentioned there have been a number of administration failures at eBay. However there wasn’t sufficient proof to carry prices in opposition to the executives or the corporate itself.

“We indicted seven folks, all of whom have pleaded responsible,” mentioned Mr. Lelling, who’s now in non-public apply. “We did what we got here to do. As to Wenig and Wymer, they could have been negligent, they could even have been reckless, however we lacked the onerous proof to say they had been educated and intentional individuals in a felony conspiracy.”

The Steiners say of their swimsuit that the prosecutors relied too closely on eBay’s personal investigation to clear the corporate and its executives. “When eBay interviewed executives, they didn’t give the federal government the interviews, they gave them an oral report,” Ms. Scapicchio mentioned. “How is that an actual investigation?”

She is keen for the decide within the case to permit discovery to start. “I would like the stuff the federal government already acquired, after which I would like the stuff they by no means requested for,” she mentioned.

Charles Krupa/Related Press

In 2002, the accounting agency Arthur Andersen was convicted of obstructing justice for shredding paperwork in a case associated to Enron, prompting the failure of the 28,000-employee firm. When the U.S. Supreme Courtroom unanimously overturned the Andersen conviction in 2005, it was seen as a warning to prosecutors.

For all of the speak that “firms are folks,” they’re not often punished. Federal felony prices in opposition to enterprise entities have recently been averaging about 60 a year, down from 110 in 2005.

“There’s this ambiguity surrounding an organization,” mentioned Daniel J.H. Greenwood, a Hofstra College legislation professor who research company governance. “We give it a number of the authorized rights of a person and infrequently consider it as one however, in the long run, it is a corporation of many individuals. Because the previous authorized aphorism goes, it has neither physique to kick, nor soul to rattling. So even when an organization loses a case, the ache of the punishment goes to be handed on.”

Eighteen months in the past, eBay informed Mr. Lelling and his crew that it was “prepared to handle restitution” with the Steiners, and that was another reason to skip felony prices in opposition to the corporate.

That restitution nonetheless hasn’t occurred.

Final spring, eBay and the Steiners agreed to seek the advice of Paul Finn, an expert mediator who had efficiently resolved a whole lot of claims of sexual abuse by the Catholic Church.

On one facet there was a pair who had executed completely nothing unsuitable however now couldn’t do probably the most staple items — go to the shop, take a stroll — with out feeling traumatized once more. Then there was an organization that felt it was additionally a sufferer, a very good company betrayed by dangerous staff.

Mr. Finn, for all his ability, couldn’t carry the events collectively. There are not any ongoing negotiations, no widespread floor.

“We’d love all firms to step up and do the proper factor with out being legally compelled to do it,” mentioned Mr. Lelling, the prosecutor. “However that isn’t what occurs.”

EBay, made up of patrons and sellers, was created by its group.

“If you’re going to run an open market, it’s a must to consider in folks,” Mr. Wenig mentioned in 2015, the 12 months he turned chief govt. That was one among eBay’s core values: “We encourage you to deal with others the best way you need to be handled.”

However instances have modified since 1999. The 2018 taking pictures on the Silicon Valley campus of YouTube by a consumer who felt mistreated by the video web site set off shock waves throughout Silicon Valley.

Believing in folks gave option to hiring good individuals who might cease dangerous folks. Silicon Valley historians say the businesses have employed ex-military and legislation enforcement professionals, though the small print come out solely when there’s a scandal or lawsuit.

Know-how executives steadily really feel, and typically are, very weak, regardless of their energy, wealth and affect. “You’re one child in a storage away from not being that huge,” Mr. Wenig informed The Wall Avenue Journal in 2018, expressing the widespread Silicon Valley concern of upstart opponents.

Mr. Lelling, the prosecutor, mentioned it was inevitable that an organization’s paranoia would get the higher of it, and the incident would crash into public view. “The tradition inside these firms is commonly very aggressive and confrontational and the competitors between the businesses is extraordinarily intense and naked knuckles,” he mentioned.

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

A number of the safety jobs had been outsourced. EBay labored with a contractor known as Progressive F.O.R.C.E. Ideas to assist employees and run its safety crew. Progressive F.O.R.C.E. — the acronym stands for “Pressure Choices for Resolving Combative Encounters” — is predicated in Las Vegas and has 1,124 employees in 118 places. The corporate didn’t return messages for remark.

Using an unbiased safety outfit allowed eBay a specific amount of deniability. In a PowerPoint presentation to prosecutors that’s a part of the court docket papers, the corporate says one of many causes it had no clue dangerous issues had been being executed below its title was as a result of the key safety crew booked its journey to Massachusetts, the place a number of members purchased instruments to interrupt into the Steiners’ storage and set up a monitoring system, “off the grid” and used “non-company money playing cards.”

These actions represented an actual innovation for company crime, mentioned Amy Burkart, a former prosecutor within the Boston U.S. Lawyer’s Workplace who labored on the case.

“We noticed this use of nameless accounts, and buying of burner laptops and burner telephones, and utilizing pay as you go playing cards to buy the deliveries — strategies that we might have seen beforehand solely in drug trafficking organizations or different kinds of felony exercise,” Ms. Burkart mentioned in a podcast with the legislation agency Jones Day.

The Steiners contend of their swimsuit that Progressive F.O.R.C.E. paid for all of this exercise after which billed eBay, suggesting that eBay knew or ought to have recognized what was occurring. In its presentation to prosecutors, eBay notes that it has now closed an “expensing loophole” that it “found” within the case.

If, in Ms. Burkart’s phrases, a number of the strategies the safety crew used borrowed from drug traffickers, others had been adopted from U.S. authorities intelligence companies.

In court docket papers, Mr. Baugh mentioned that was the entire level of hiring him. The safety chief described the work he used to do for the U.S. authorities as conducting bodily and digital surveillance, bodily trespass, utilizing false pretenses and pretend identities and hacking pc techniques. These had been “arguably illegal means” in service of a higher good, he mentioned.

“Ebay executives had been effectively conscious of Mr. Baugh’s background,” his lawyer, William Fick, wrote, “they usually anticipated he would use methods and techniques that he realized in service of the U.S. authorities.”

Why, he asks in his filings, would he go after some random journalists on his personal secret whim?

He was simply doing his job, Mr. Baugh mentioned. He has filed a countersuit in opposition to eBay saying that below California legislation it should pay his authorized payments.

“Mr. Baugh acted at eBay’s behest,” his legal professionals mentioned. The corporate turned to him so he might remedy the issue of the Steiners “by much less standard means.”

It’s a wierd turnabout: The man who was in control of terrorizing the Steiners, and whom they may undoubtedly converse in opposition to at his Sept. 29 sentencing, is now backing up their claims.

In Could 2019, about three months earlier than the stalking operation, EcommerceBytes put up a put up with the headline: “Did You Know eBay Built a Lavish NYC Pub Style Lounge?” Ms. Steiner quoted the pub contractor, who had written on his personal web site that it was commissioned by Mr. Wenig to duplicate a NYC restaurant.

A brisk debate adopted within the feedback. “Is there a lavish house for weekly AA conferences too?” requested one. “Simply one other waste of shareholders cash,” wrote one other. There have been defenses of eBay as effectively: “It’s none of your small business what the heck they do with their cash.”

The criticism was picked up and amplified on Twitter by a fellow who known as himself Fidomaster. Ebay thought he is likely to be in league with the Steiners, or possibly that the Steiners had been Fidomaster. To frighten the couple, a safety crew member went to the Steiners’ house and wrote “Fidomaster” on the fence.

Ebay noticed plots to undermine the corporate the place most others would see folks expressing opinions. Within the texts and emails which have turn into public thus far, there was no suggestion by anybody at eBay that possibly it should again down.

Quite the other. They egg one another on.

“You have got this groupthink drawback the place folks get collectively and begin brainstorming, the concepts get higher and higher, and what occurred to the victims acquired worse and worse than if it had been only a single particular person sitting in a basement fuming,” Seth Kosto, an assistant U.S. legal professional, mentioned in a listening to.

In August 2019 emails that had been produced as a part of an exhibit, eBay executives and legal professionals spend a great deal of time fretting about Fidomaster.

“We should always shut down the account,” Mr. Wenig writes, including that Fidomaster’s title “retains popping up inflicting every kind of bother.”

A lawyer responds that they “escalated” at Twitter, however the social media firm is “inflexible of their interpretation of the legislation.”

“Twitter is a sea of rubbish on these items,” Mr. Wymer gives.

Mr. Baugh says he’s progressing with figuring out Fidomaster, however “it’s difficult and this particular person is aware of learn how to conceal.”

In a later message to the legal professionals and the safety chief, Mr. Wymer expresses frustration.

“I genuinely consider these persons are appearing out of malice and ANYTHING we will do to resolve it needs to be explored,” he writes, including: “No matter. It. Takes.”

Paranoia takes on a lifetime of its personal.

Philip Cooke was the primary member of the eBay safety crew to be sentenced.

“I had empathy for all of the unsuitable folks,” he informed the court docket earlier than his summer season 2021 sentencing, which means “my CEO, my boss, my teammates.” That obscured the reality: “A gaggle of individuals acquired collectively and immorally and illegally rationalized and justified horrific habits with a view to please the boss.”

Cj Gunther/EPA, by way of Shutterstock

He was a embellished police captain who retired in his early 50s. However he was bored, he mentioned in authorized filings, and that inspired ingesting. He went again to work, becoming a member of Progressive F.O.R.C.E. as an assistant crew chief offering armed emergency response at excessive tech campuses. He hung out at Fb, the place he drank, after which eBay, the place he drank extra. At each firms, there was a “ingesting tradition” that inspired Mr. Cooke’s habits, his spouse, Deborah Rothschild, informed the court docket.

After a 12 months with Progressive F.O.R.C.E., Mr. Cooke started working for eBay instantly in early 2019, as a senior supervisor of safety operations for $185,000 a 12 months.

He was on the fringes of the operation, he mentioned, telling the court docket he frequently deleted emails from Mr. Baugh as a result of he believed his boss was “messing with him.” Because the full-fledged harassment of the Steiners started, Mr. Cooke went to work for eBay in India, the place his legal professionals mentioned he was “alone and inebriated.”

Mr. Cooke was not fired in September 2019, when his six colleagues had been. As a substitute, he was promoted and given a increase. In July 2020, he was charged with cyberstalking the Steiners, who say eBay’s failure to fireplace him earlier is extra proof that the corporate did a foul job probing itself.

“This case is concerning the tradition of an organization that promotes and rewards staff that break the legislation,” Mr. Steiner mentioned in court docket papers.

In the long run, the decide break up the distinction between what Mr. Cooke needed and what the federal government requested, giving him 18 months in jail. He informed the court docket that he was now sober. By way of his lawyer, he declined to be interviewed.

The Steiners piled up baking pans in opposition to the again door to make a clatter if there have been a break-in. They slept in separate bedrooms in order that if one among them was attacked in the course of evening the opposite may make it to security.

In the event that they had been killed, Ms. Steiner informed her husband on the peak of the stalking, a minimum of they’d have the comfort they had been “doing one thing we cherished and believed in.”

They nonetheless do it. It should be tough to cowl an organization that’s their livelihood, which has victimized them and which they’re suing. Possibly some day the Steiners will discuss this, however for now, by their lawyer, they declined.

The positioning today would by no means inflame even probably the most high-strung eBay govt. It was a weak second quarter for eBay, however EcommerceBytes mainly reprinted the company’s news release. A put up a couple of cranky vendor defacing a web page on eBay’s Australian affiliate with the message “eBay is evil” was devoid of commentary. A information merchandise from June 2021 saying Mr. Wenig’s appointment to an advisory board at Salesforce didn’t even point out the scandal.

If “take her down” meant “neutralize a critic,” the stalking operation could possibly be deemed successful.

Even the nameless feedback beneath the tales — as soon as the topic of overwhelming concern to eBay administration — appear muted. There have been simply 5 feedback on that put up about Mr. Wenig, though two of them did say he belonged in jail.

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