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#ExxonKnew hacking middleman gets nearly 7 years in prison. We still don’t know who hired him.
“Exxon’s silence is deafening,” said one victim of the hacking scheme.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead.
The man who pleaded guilty to participating in a massive criminal hacking scheme targeting climate advocates who campaigned against ExxonMobil was sentenced to nearly 7 years in prison yesterday, while the question of who hired him remains unanswered.
During his sentencing hearing in federal court in Manhattan, Israeli private investigator Aviram Azari said through a translator that “there will come a day” when he would be able to tell his victims more. Federal prosecutors say Azari served as the scheme’s middleman, connecting his clients with hackers across the globe who were directed to infiltrate the emails and online accounts of thousands of victims and their close friends, family, and coworkers between 2014 and 2019. In 2019, he was arrested on his way to Disneyland and detained in New York.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Azari particularly targeted U.S. climate advocates and obtained information that Exxon would later use in court to deflect accusations that the company has engaged in a decades-long campaign to deceive the public about climate change.
“Some of the hacked documents that were stolen from various of the victims’ online accounts were leaked to the press, resulting in articles relating to the New York and Massachusetts Attorneys Generals’ investigations into Exxon Mobil Corporation’s knowledge about climate change and potential misstatements made by Exxon regarding what it knew about the risks of climate change,” the DOJ said in a statement yesterday.
Azari had pleaded guilty to counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit hacking, and aggravated identity theft last April. None of Azari’s clients, who prosecutors say paid Azari $4.8 million, have been named.
One of the hacking victims, Peter Frumhoff, who was chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists until 2021, told ExxonKnews after the hearing that the sentencing is hopefully “a stepping stone, not a final moment” of accountability for the illegal attack against key players in the #ExxonKnew movement.
“I would’ve thought by now, given the facts and circumstances of this case, that the board [of ExxonMobil] would’ve called for a transparent and independent investigation to make sure that none of their employees or agents were involved in this crime,” Lee Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Family Fund and a victim of the hacking, told reporters outside the courthouse. “But Exxon’s silence is deafening.”
(Note: ExxonKnews is a project of the Center for Climate Integrity, which is funded in part by grants from the Rockefeller Family Fund. A staff member at the Center for Climate Integrity, Kert Davies, was also a victim of the hacking scheme during his former tenure at the Climate Investigations Center.)
So who could have been behind the hacking of #ExxonKnew activists?
Three victims of the hacking gave statements to the court and asked federal prosecutors to continue their investigation into the hacking scheme.
Frumhoff said that his and other colleagues’ emails were hacked at a time when “a great deal of pressure was being brought to bear” on Exxon and other fossil fuel majors, and that the hacking was a clear attempt to chill their efforts to expose the companies’ deception and hold them accountable.
“We have a right to know — the public has a right to know — who [Azari’s] clients were,” he told the court.
Another victim, Daniel Feldman, who believes he was targeted on behalf of a Russian oligarch living in Israel, spoke directly to Azari during his statement. “You’re weak,” he told Azari. “If you’re truly sorry, you should be giving the names of the people who hired you.”
Prosecutors said documents stolen through the hacking scheme were introduced in court filings by Exxon, which argued that advocates had “conspir[ed]” with state attorneys general to unfairly investigate and vilify the company. One private email between lawyers, academics, and advocates about a meeting in January 2016 to develop a plan to publicize Exxon’s climate deception was referenced on the company’s official #ExxonKnew rebuttal website. But after that email was highlighted in a Wall Street Journal exclusive report as a focus of the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office investigation, the page was promptly taken off the internet.
Wasserman told the courtroom that, at the time he was hacked, his organization was also working to expose Exxon’s climate deception. After that meeting in January 2016, Wasserman said he received a call from a reporter who somehow got a copy of the email he and other colleagues had received about the gathering. “It felt like Big Brother had arrived,” he said. “I found myself whispering in my own home.”
“The extensive targeting of American nonprofits exercising their first amendment rights is exceptionally troubling,” reads a 2020 report by Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto cybersecurity research group. Researchers found that the hacking, which included at least one minor child, “increased around certain key events” surrounding Exxon — like the launch of investigations and accountability lawsuits against the company by government officials.
One of those lawsuits, filed by a group of Puerto Rico municipalities, now cites a sentencing memo filed by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York last month, arguing that it "heavily implicates ExxonMobil’s participation in the hacking scheme, likely in furtherance and defense of the defendants’ racketeering enterprise."
“You don’t know everything”
For a case predicated around silence and secrecy, the sounds in the courtroom during the hearing were many: while lawyers and victims addressed the judge, an interpreter muttered Hebrew into a microphone to Azari, who listened to the translations through chunky headphones. Azari himself cleared his throat every few seconds, a likely symptom of a gastro-intestinal illness he developed during his five years in a New York prison which was described at length by his U.S. attorney, Barry Zone. Zone said Azari has been ostracized by prison-mates for “burping incessantly” and punished for seeking medical care, including being left in his cell for 58 hours without food prior to a hospital visit. Azari and his lawyers (one of whom called in from Israel) asked the judge to consider his military service in Israel as a factor, and described the effect of Azari’s absence from his wife and daughters.
Prosecutors recommended a prison sentence of up to about 9 years — but the judge, John G. Koeltl, decided on a lesser sentence after taking into consideration the “deplorable” conditions at the Metropolitan Correctional Center where Azari has been held since 2019 and Azari’s military service.
Just after the judge handed Azari his sentence, the defendant spoke directly to his victims. “I ask forgiveness — you don’t know everything,” he said.
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