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Did Scientology hire the man sent to prison for hacking us? Not his job to find out, judge said

OldCourt

 
As Eric Saldarriaga was leaving a ninth-floor courtroom at the old federal court house in New York City following his sentencing yesterday, he was in tears.

I couldn’t help wincing.

I’d just been in the courtroom myself, and had testified. The document I had read from, my “victim impact statement,” was the kind of thing a judge uses to decide how severe a crime is. Typically, a victim is trying to convince a judge to throw the book at a defendant.

But that wasn’t my intention. It was obvious to me that Saldarriaga, a private investigator, was a small player, a fall guy. He had pled guilty to hacking, but he didn’t actually do any hacking himself. He had used an online hacking service set up by overseas criminals. And he had targeted me and many of the other 48 victims not because he had any interest in or malice toward us, that I know of. He had presumably tried to hack us because someone else, a client, wanted our information.

I really had no animosity for Eric Saldarriaga, and it didn’t matter to me whether he was sentenced to probation or, as it turned out, to three months in federal prison. Judging by his reaction, the prospect of even just 90 days behind bars is a terrifying one. I don’t know that I wouldn’t feel the same way if I were in his spot. His attorney, Peter Brill, had argued for probation by referring to medical examinations which suggested that Saldarriaga is suffering from numerous ailments that might make a prison stay dangerous. Maybe that’s the case, I don’t know. Saldarriaga, 41, didn’t look obviously ill — he’s a broad-shouldered, stocky Latino man who lives in Astoria, Queens. His attorney said he has a bad heart and more. And he also asked for leniency because Saldarriaga is a father of two young sons, and he’ll never work again in his field with the press the case is garnering.

So, for all of those reasons, Saldarriaga probably does find prison a terrifying prospect. But I wasn’t at the witness stand yesterday in an attempt to get Judge Richard J. Sullivan to extend Saldarriaga’s sentence.

I was there because I wanted Saldarriaga’s client list. And I wanted to know why prosecutors weren’t going after those clients or the criminals who had done the actual hacking.

Judge Richard J. Sullivan wanted to know about that as well. And when he asked about the actual hackers, Assistant US Attorney Daniel Noble said that because the hackers were overseas, it was difficult to investigate or charge them.

Well, that’s disappointing. But what about the clients? Who paid Saldarriaga the measly $5,000 he made during the five year period, from 2009 to 2014, when he was apparently helping clients hack email accounts?

I explained to Judge Sullivan about the astronomical coincidence it would require for Saldarriaga to target me and Mike Rinder and not do so on behalf of the Church of Scientology. Rinder left Scientology in 2007 after working as its international spokesman — since then, he’s been working hard to publicize the church’s controversies and abuses, and it’s made him the subject of intense surveillance and harassment by Scientology private investigators, something I’ve experienced myself as a journalist who writes about the church. As Rinder explained in his own victim impact statement, which he submitted Thursday, “The only thing Tony Ortega and I have in common is that we are at the top of Scientology’s enemies list, because we have publicly exposed their abusive practices.”

I told Judge Sullivan that when my attorney, Scott Pilutik, had asked Brill whether Saldarriaga had targeted me on behalf of Scientology, he claimed that wasn’t the case and said that instead I was targeted over some missing-person case that had nothing to do with me. Saldarriaga himself had said it had something to do with my being the editor of the Village Voice, when I first asked him about it in November 2013. By then, however, it had been more than a year since I’d left the Voice. The story didn’t add up, and Pilutik told me at the time that Saldarriaga was obviously lying to me.

I made that accusation in court yesterday. I was being lied to by a defendant, through his attorney, just days before he was scheduled to be sentenced. I told the judge I thought any court would be interested in hearing that.

But Judge Sullivan said he had no power to compel Saldarriaga to reveal who he was really working for. He wasn’t running a “truth commission,” he said. It wasn’t his court’s responsibility to investigate the Church of Scientology.

At that point, feeling my oats, I may have uttered something about American courts in general falling down on the job on that score.

But as frustrating as it was to hear that Judge Sullivan felt he had no way of pressing Saldarriaga for information about his clients, I did take away several positive things from the experience.

And mainly, that had to do with both of us, Judge Sullivan and myself, beating up on the US Attorney’s office and the FBI.

At one point, Judge Sullivan tried to explain that what I should be doing is telling him how severely Saldarriaga’s crime had affected me — that was the kind of information he could use to help him determine a sentence. But that’s just it, I said to him, Mike Rinder and I have been told literally nothing by prosecutors about the nature or extent of Saldarriaga’s victimization of us. Sullivan seemed shocked by that, and put AUSA Noble on the spot — why hadn’t he told us more?

Pilutik and I also asked Noble that question outside the courtroom, and in each case, we got a lot of double-speak about the limits of what Noble or law enforcement could reveal. It made little sense. The government had expended significant effort to put Eric Saldarriaga behind bars for committing a crime, but was unwilling to tell his victims anything about what he’d done to them.

Brill, at one point, took his own shot at the investigation of the case, which was noted by Matthew Goldstein in his very good writeup of the hearing for the New York Times

Peter Brill, Mr. Saldarriaga’s lawyer, complained that the investigation of Mr. Saldarriaga had been handled by a string of agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a number of federal prosecutors, potentially missing an opportunity to investigate some leads his client had provided authorities about those who may have hired him.

Mr. Brill noted that on some occasions, Mr. Saldarriaga would arrive for scheduled meetings with F.B.I. agents only to discover that the agents were unavailable. Mr. Brill said that at times the matter did not seem to be a priority for authorities, who first approached Mr. Saldarriaga about his illegal hacking in March 2014.

While I have no confidence in the story Brill told my attorney about why Saldarriaga targeted me, this account by him does have the ring of truth.

Based on what little we were able to get out of Noble in and out of the courtroom, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the reason the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office didn’t dig into the role the Church of Scientology may have played in these crimes is, well, they didn’t have the first clue about Rinder or myself and why both of us being victimized is rather suggestive.

In other words, while the government managed to send a man to prison, this was a half-assed investigation at best.

So what do we do next? Brill told Judge Sullivan that he’s willing to speak further with my attorney, Scott Pilutik. And we’re assuming he’ll also extend that courtesy to Mike Rinder’s attorney, Ray Jeffrey. We’re extremely interested to see if Saldarriaga attempts to explain that his client for the Rinder hack was anyone other than an agent of the Church of Scientology.

And more importantly, we can’t help wondering if the FBI will get its act together and pursue this matter further. The agency has a pitiful record regarding Scientology’s abuses, but this is pretty fresh information. Noble was willing to tell me that my victimization happened just two years ago. We’d be interested to see if Rinder can pin down when a hack was attempted on him.

A couple of other notes that we gleaned from the hearing. AUSA Noble did make the point in court that Saldarriaga had been hired by clients who had heard of his skills getting into email accounts. So the suggestion we saw in the comments that Saldarriaga’s clients would simply argue they had asked for information and didn’t know how Saldarriaga got it is apparently not consistent with the evidence.

Also, based on what Noble said — in and out of the courtroom — I have enough information to convince me that the November 2013 “spoofing” incident was the extent of Saldarriaga’s attempt to hack me, and I don’t believe that he got access to my data. As Noble pointed out, his office contacted people that Saldarriaga attempted to hack, whether he was successful or not.

Ultimately, Judge Sullivan sentenced Saldarriaga to three months in federal prison (Brill suggested that it be served out at Fort Dix in New Jersey), three years of supervised probation, the return of the $5,000 made in the crime, and an additional $1,000 fine.

Sullivan said that for the nature of the offense and Saldarriaga’s background, it was a serious penalty. But he said he also wanted to send a message that hacking email accounts is a serious crime, and won’t be tolerated.

But yesterday’s hearing also sent another message: It’s time the FBI got off its ass.

 
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Northern Exposure

Some of you noticed yesterday that we added some dates to our book tour. And that means we need your help! We’ve booked the travel, but we need assistance finding venues and groups who might want to sponsor us. Your help has been invaluable helping us put together our previous events. Please, suggest cool places where we might have 70 to 150 folks together. And for the most part, bookstores are a lost cause. They book many months out and tend to work with publishers, not authors. We’d rather meet in a theater or restaurant or a wine cellar or a brewery.

Here are the stops on the tour. Let’s get to work!

Sept 23: Cleveland
Sept 24: Minneapolis
Sept 27: Portland
Sept 28: Seattle
Sept 30: Vancouver, BC

 
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BOOK NOTES
3D-Unbreakable
We didn’t get a chance to include photos in our book, so we’ve posted them at a dedicated page. Reader Sookie put together a complete index and we’re hosting it here on the website. Copies of the paperback version of ‘The Unbreakable Miss Lovely’ are on sale at Amazon. The Kindle edition is also available, and shipping instantly.

Our upcoming appearances (and check out the interactive map to our ongoing tour)…

 
June 28: Clearwater, Florida (with Paulette Cooper) Clearwater Public Library, 2 pm, sponsored by Center for Inquiry-Tampa Bay and the Humanist Society of the Suncoast.

July 12: Washington DC, Center for Inquiry (with Paulette Cooper)

July 14: Hartford, MARK TWAIN HOUSE (with Tom Tomorrow)

July 17: Denver, The Secular Hub, 7 pm (with Chris Shelton)

July 20: Dallas, Times Ten Cellar, 7 pm (with Robert Wilonsky)

July 22: Houston, Fox and Hound, 11470 Westheimer Road, sponsored by Humanists of Houston

July 24: San Antonio, Folc Restaurant, 6 pm

July 25: Austin

July 29: Paris (with Jonny Jacobsen)

August 4: London, Conway Hall, (with John Sweeney)

August 24: Boston, Boston Skeptics in the Pub, 7 pm

Sept 15: Arizona State University

Sept 23: Cleveland

Sept 24: Minneapolis

Sept 27: Portland

Sept 28: Seattle

Sept 30: Vancouver, BC

 
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Posted by Tony Ortega on June 27, 2015 at 07:00

E-mail your tips and story ideas to tonyo94@gmail.com or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. Here at the Bunker we try to have a post up every morning at 7 AM Eastern (Noon GMT), and on some days we post an afternoon story at around 2 PM. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of LA attorney and former church member Vance Woodward

UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists

GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice

SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts

PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer
The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill
The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield

 

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