Tuesday, November 21, 2017
News Roundup

Court records link Scientology to convicted email hacker

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Federal court documents made public this week have linked the Church of Scientology to a private investigator convicted of illegally culling personal information from dozens of email accounts.

The investigator, Eric Saldarriaga, 41, was sentenced Friday to three months in prison for conspiring to engage in computer hacking. He pleaded guilty earlier this year in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The Scientology connection arose somewhat by accident after two men who have been targeted by the church's private investigators figured out they both had been named as victims of Saldarriaga. They are former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder, now a vocal critic of the church, and Tony Ortega, a journalist and blogger who has written about Scientology for two decades.

Both were prominently featured this year in the HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and Prison of Belief, which took a critical look at the church.

Rinder, who lives in Palm Harbor, said he received a letter last week from federal prosecutors asking if he would make a "victim impact statement" that U.S. District Judge Richard J. Sullivan might consider when sentencing Saldarriaga. As someone who has been surveilled by Scientology operatives and once carried out such operations while with the church, Rinder said he initially suspected the matter had something to do with the church.

But he said he became more certain on Wednesday after calling Ortega and finding out he had received the same letter last month. As with Rinder, prosecutors asked Ortega for a victim statement in the case.

Both men wrote statements this week and sent them to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan. They were part of the record Friday during Saldarriaga's sentencing hearing. Ortega, interviewed Friday, said he showed up in person to read his.

Ortega had confronted Saldarriaga in 2013 after finding out the investigator had used one of his email addresses to send out correspondence pretending to be him, a practice known as "spoofing." Saldarriaga denied the activity, blaming someone else, and insisted he was not working for Scientology at the time, said Ortega, who never got to the bottom of the episode.

He didn't think of it again until federal prosecutors contacted him.

Rinder and Ortega said in their statements that they were sure Scientology was behind at least some of Saldarriaga's activities, and they asked federal authorities to find out who paid him so the originators of the activity could be prosecuted.

"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," Ortega wrote to the court.

Said Rinder: "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 an interview, Rinder echoed something else he told the judge: "This shouldn't be able to be funded by a charitable organization."

The church did not respond Friday to a Tampa Bay Times interview request or to emailed questions.

Asked whether federal authorities would pursue the identities of Saldarriaga's clients, a spokeswoman for the U.S Attorney's Office in Manhattan declined to comment.

The case is the latest of several instances in which court and law enforcement records have shed light on the extent of Scientology's surveillance activities.

In April, it was widely reported that a small Wisconsin police department arrested a heavily armed private investigator, Dwayne S. Powell, who had spent 18 months surveilling the father of Scientology leader David Miscavige. Powell told police he had been paid about $10,000 a month.

In 2013, the church and Miscavige were sued by the wife of former Scientology executive Marty Rathbun. She alleged church operatives had relentlessly followed and harassed the couple.

In 2012, two private investigators sued, saying the church had stopped paying them money they had been promised. The pair, Paul Marrick and Greg Arnold, said Scientology had hired them in 1988 to constantly follow a former church executive, an operation that continued for nearly 25 years.

According to court records, Saldarriaga worked in New York City through his firm, Iona Research & Services Inc. From 2009 to 2014, the records state, he hired individuals to hack into at least 60 email accounts belonging to nearly 50 people.

The hackers obtained usernames and passwords for email accounts, then collected payment from Saldarriaga, who used the information to access accounts.

His activities were discovered by agents in the Los Angeles Field Office of the FBI, who had been investigating illegal hacking services.

In a June 17 letter to Judge Sullivan asking for leniency, Saldarriaga described cases in which he used private email information to "do something good for those in need." In one case, he found out through emails that a male client of his was stalking an ex-fiancee, and he sent an anonymous letter to the woman to alert her.

In other instances, he said, he used hacked information to prevent children from being molested.

In addition to the three-month prison sentence, Saldarriaga was ordered to serve three years of supervised release, forfeit the $5,000 he made from his activities and pay a $1,000 fine.

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