PI Hacked Scientology Critics
A New York court jailed a private investigator for three months Friday for hacking into around 60 email accounts on behalf of different clients – including two prominent critics of Scientology.
But District Judge Richard J. Sullivan said it was not the court’s role to investigate further.
Journalist Tony Ortega, who provides daily coverage of Scientology at his website, The Underground Bunker and was one of the targets of the hacking operation, is pressing the authorities to look deeper into the matter.
Ortega spoke at Friday’s sentencing hearing for Eric Saldarriaga, the PI who tried to hack into one of his email accounts. Saldarriaga also targeted emails belonging to Mike Rinder, a former high-ranking Scientology executive turned critic.
In an update posted to his website, Ortega wrote:
Saldarriaga got three months in prison, … [b]ut that's not why I was there. I want law enforcement to investigate who paid Saldarriaga, and I think that is going to happen.
But the judge told me he couldn't be responsible for that, saying that it isn't his court's job to investigate the Church of Scientology. At which point, let the record show, I said courts in this country have a history of letting us down on that score.
Eric Saldarriaga has already pled guilty to conspiracy to commit computer hacking back in March. Official documents suggest he attacked at least 60 email accounts in an operation stretching from 2009 to March 2014.
A Justice Department of Justice statement said that Saldarriaga, 41, of Queens, New York, also received a sentence of three years of supervised release, was ordered to forfeit $5,000 and pay a $1,000 fine. The first three months of his supervised probation will be under home confinement.
Contacted for his reaction to the sentence, Ortega said: “To be clear, I was not there to convince the judge to punish Saldarriaga more severely. I only care about who hired him, and I would rather he talk honestly about that than serve time behind bars.”
Both Ortega and Rinder want investigators to go after whoever really hired the investigator.
In victim impact statements submitted to the court, each man said that only one organisation could have hired Saldarriaga to act against them both.
“It would strain credulity to accept that Mr. Saldarriaga’s targeting of Michael Rinder and myself was coincidental, given that we are both high profile targets of Scientology’s surveillance and harassment campaigns,” wrote Ortega in his statement.
Rinder summarized the intense campaign of harassment that he has already endured since quitting the movement and speaking out.
“The crime perpetrated against me is consistent with a pattern of actions carried out against me as a whistleblower and outspoken critic of the Church of Scientology," he said in his statement. "I am of no investigative interest to anyone other than Scientology.”
"Whoever paid Mr. Saldarriaga should be investigated and prosecuted."
Asked about the allegations regarding Scientology, defense attorney Peter Brill said: “There were some allegations that he was hacking on behalf of Scientology. Mr Ortega and Mr Rinder were under that impression and they were upset that the government wasn’t revealing anything about Mr Saldarriaga’s clients, and Mr Ortega stood up in court.”
While he understood why the two men might find the situation suspicious, he insisted that it was a coincidence: that Saldarriaga had been working for two different clients where they were concerned.
“Mr. Saldiarraga clearly exhibited remorse for this actions and he is looking to move on and move away from the client group he was working for in the future,” Brill added.
The FBI announced they had caught Saldarriaga in a statement released in March, but did not name his victims.
“Eric Saldarriaga crossed the line as a private investigator by hiring hackers to unlawfully and secretly access over 60 e-mail accounts, including accounts belonging to people he was investigating,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in the statement.
It is not yet clear who the other victims were.
“Eric Saldarriaga didn’t honorably serve his clients when he abused his powers to the detriment of his victims,” FBI Assistant Director Diego Rodriguez said in the March statement.
But Ortega, in his statement to the court, urged investigators to resolved the question of who those clients were. "Sentencing Mr. Saldarriaga without pressing him for this information would be as much a miscarriage of justice as his original crime. Whoever paid Mr. Saldarriaga should be investigated and prosecuted."
Breaking the story at his site on Thursday, Ortega wrote that he had caught Saldarriaga meddling with one of the email addresses associated with his website back in November 2013. (Court papers suggest that Saldarriaga – AKA “Emmanuela Gelpi” – was trying to hack accounts as far back as 2009 and up to March 2014.)
“Saldarriaga had made it look like emails coming from him were actually coming from me – a stunt known as ‘spoofing’,” Ortega wrote.
He tipped off his attorney, Scott Pilutik, who is also webmaster for his site and confronted Saldarriaga. Pilutik assured him that Saldarriaga’s claim that he was innocent – that they were both victims of a third party – were not credible.
Ortega left it there. Then about a month ago, the US Attorney’s Office asked him to submit a victim impact statement ahead of Saldarriaga’s sentencing. Up until then, he wrote, he had not even been told about the arrest, let alone the prosecution and conviction.
Pilutik’s attorney contacted Saldarriaga’s attorney, Peter Brill, asking if he had been working for Scientology. He got the same reply that Saldiarraga had given him back in 2013: this was nothing to do with the movement.
Ortega was ready to let the matter drop, until Mike Rinder contacted him on Wednesday to tell him that had had been targeted by a private investigator. When Ortega realized the same man had gone after them, the case took on a completely different significance.
Tony Ortega has been covering Scientology for 20 years and his website, the Underground Bunker, provides daily coverage of the movement. Rinder, a former senior Scientology executive, runs a blog where he regularly posts leaked documents and information from his contacts still inside the movement.
Both men featured in the recent HBO documentary on Scientology’s, Alex Gibney’s Going Clear.
The Church of Scientology has not so far responded to a request for a response.
Full disclosure: the writer is an occasional contributor to Tony Ortega’s website.