A private investigator from Astoria, New York who broke into the email accounts of two prominent critics of the Church of Scientology was sentenced on Friday in federal court to three months in jail.
Eric Saldarriaga pled guilty on 5 March to one count of conspiracy to commit computer hacking.
Besides the jail time – which is half of what the court’s own probation department sought – he’ll also be serving three years of supervised probation and will be fined $1,000 (£635).
Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara has said that Saldarriaga hired hackers to pry open over 60 email accounts, and hand the information over to the private eye.
Two hacked accounts belong to Scientology critics
Two of the victims have both been featured in the book and HBO documentary ‘Going Clear’, which profile eight former members of Scientology as they describe “the systematic history of abuse and betrayal by Church officials, including the current leadership of the Church,” as the documentary’s site describes.
One victim was Mike Rinder, a former Scientology spokesman and one of the victims notified by the US Attorney’s Office.
Another victim is Tony Ortega, a journalist and blogger who’s written about Scientology for 20 years and who authored a book about the church’s campaign against the author and Scientology critic Paulette Cooper.
Both Ortega and Rinder had victim statements read out in court.
In an interview with Ars Technica, Ortega said that he first became aware of Saldarriaga in 2013 when he started receiving read receipts for emails sent from an account associated with his web domain.
Ortega said the investigator was sending emails from an account set up to look like it was Ortega’s, but he mistakenly configured it to send “read” receipts back to Ortega’s real account, as well as the fake account.
He screwed up. Otherwise I'd have never caught him.
Ortega traced the read receipts to Saldarriaga in November 2013, but the investigator pled innocent and claimed that both he and Ortega had been “punked” by a former client.
Ars quotes Ortega:
I contacted him and said, 'What the hell?' He said that he had been hacked too, and that some other private investigator was using the two of us to investigate some missing persons thing.
I asked him point blank if this was Scientology, and he said no, [he'd never work for Scientology].
Ortega wrote off the episode until recently, when he got a letter from the Department of Justice (DOJ) letting him know that he’d been a victim of Saldarriaga’s operation.
The DOJ offered Ortega the chance to write a victim impact statement for Saldarriaga’s sentencing hearing.
Ortega spoke with Rinder, who told him that he, too, had been contacted by the DOJ about his email account having been breached by an investigator.
Was his name Saldarriaga? Ortega asked him. A surprised Rinder said that yes, it was one and the same.
The court documents don’t identify the clients who paid for Saldarriaga’s investigations but Rinder believes Scientology is behind the hacks. From his statement to the court:
There can be no doubt that one of Mr. Saldarriaga's clients is Scientology. One of the other victims of this crime is Tony Ortega, the most prominent journalist in the world exposing Scientology abuses for at least a decade. I spoke with Mr. Ortega yesterday and learned that he received a similar letter to mine. 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.
In his victim statement, Ortega pointed out that Rinder knows what he’s talking about: in fact, Rinder “used to run these operations”, Ortega said, having initiated private investigations against people that have included former Scientology members and church members’ family members.
Ortega and Rinder urge investigation into Saldarriaga’s employers
Ortega joined Rinder in urging that the investigation continue, so as to find out who was paying Saldarriaga to spy on two men whose only commonality is their criticism of Scientology:
It is disturbing to me that I have been given no information about the extent of Mr. Saldarriaga's access to me, and for whom he was working, given that [representations made by Saldarriaga's attorney, Peter Brill] were evidently not truthful. Sentencing Mr. Saldarriaga without pressing him for this information would be as much of a miscarriage of justice as his original crime. Whoever paid Mr. Saldarriaga should be investigated and prosecuted.
According to Ars Technica, filings from the US Attorney’s office show that investigators are still working to track down the identities of Saldarriaga’s victims, and that a recent request for subpoenas had come from Assistant US Attorney Noble to obtain “basic subscriber information from various service providers for the email accounts the government has identified as being possibly compromised as a result of the defendant’s conduct.”