The former global security manager for eBay was sentenced on Tuesday to 18 months in prison and was ordered to pay a $15,000 fine for his role in the cyber-stalking and harassment of a Massachusetts couple who published a newsletter critical of the internet yard sale.
Philip Cooke, a police captain in Santa Clara, California, prior to his employment at eBay, was the last of seven former employees of the company charged by the US Department of Justice in 2020 for alleged involvement in a scheme to threaten and silence Ina and David Steiner, who publish the web newsletter and website EcommerceBytes.
The campaign to intimidate the Steiners for writing critically about eBay, which occurred in August and September of 2019, involved sending them live insects, the severed head of a fetal pig, a funeral wreath, a pig's head mask, and a book about coping with the loss of a spouse, according to court documents.
Court filings also describe efforts to follow the journalists in a black van, to break into their garage to install a GPS tracking device on their vehicle, and to entice viewers of fraudulent online ads to come to the victims' house for sex parties.
Cooke pleaded guilty to participation in the scheme on October 27, 2020, following guilty pleas earlier that month from co-defendants Stephanie Popp and Veronica Zea. Two days after that, Brian Gilbert and Stephanie Stockwell also pleaded guilty.
Not over yet
The cases against the two most senior former executives in the group, David Harville and James Baugh, continue to be litigated.
Two other former eBay execs not charged in the conspiracy, former CEO Devin Wenig and former comms chief Steven Wymer, both of whom left the company around the time the allegations surfaced, were sued last week, along with eBay and security contractor Progressive FORCE Concepts, in a civil complaint [PDF] filed on behalf of the Steiners.
The civil lawsuit accused the two former eBay leaders of encouraging the intimidation campaign.
"This has been an unbelievably difficult ordeal for my wife and I," said David Steiner in a statement posted to EcommerceBytes.
"Never did we imagine doing our jobs as journalists would lead to this. We want to protect the rights of reporters and their freedom of the press. We have endured enormous cruelty and abuse and feared for our lives. If this behavior can happen to us, it can happen to anyone."
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The Justice Department in its sentencing memorandum [PDF] argued that Cooke should get a 30-month sentence.
"As a retired police captain with 27 years’ service, Cooke should have appreciated the impact a fraction of this conduct would have on the victims," wrote Acting US Attorneys Nathaniel Mendell and Seth Kosto.
"Instead, he agreed to harass them online in service of a corporate objective. Cooke then committed a second crime when he interfered with the police investigation that followed, obstructing officers whom he would have called colleagues only years earlier."
Cooke's attorney, Susan Winkler, in a separate memorandum [PDF] to the court, argued for leniency, citing Cooke's limited involvement in the scheme and attempting to justify his actions by citing his concern about keeping his friend and former police department colleague Brian Gilbert out of trouble.
"Although it is no excuse, in the August 20-22 time period, when the witness tampering occurred, Mr Cooke was in India alone and inebriated," wrote Winkler. "As a result of being drunk, Mr Cooke did not fully comprehend the extent of the misconduct toward the victims and his judgment was impaired; he found it nearly impossible to believe after prior discussions that his friends and colleagues could or would engage in surveillance, role play, and threatening deliveries that he learned may have happened."
"He is utterly remorseful for his involvement in misleading the Natick police [in Massachusetts]. He knew better. It was inconsistent with everything he stood for as a police officer for decades."
Cooke is the first of those who have been charged and have pleaded guilty to be sentenced [PDF]. According to Winkler's memorandum, the government plans to seek sentences of 41 months for Stephanie Popp, owing to her supervisory role in the harassment campaign, 37 months for Gilbert, 30 months for Zea, and 24 months for Stockwell. ®