Mercenary hackers stole data that Exxon later cited in climate lawsuits -US prosecutors

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(c) Reuters.

By Raphael Satter and Christopher Bing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. prosecutors say an Israeli private investigator used hackers to steal emails from climate activists who were campaigning against American energy giant Exxon Mobil Corp (NYSE:).

In a sentencing memo filed on Thursday, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, for the Southern District of New York, said Exxon’s lawyers cited media articles based on the stolen emails to parry investigations by U.S. state attorneys general.

Prosecutors stopped short of stating a connection between the Israeli private eye – former policeman Aviram Azari – and Exxon, and the memo did not identify any of his clients. Victims say that leaves a key question unanswered.

“While it’s satisfying to see Azari sentenced for these crimes committed many years ago, we would still love to know who paid him to target me and my climate activist and lawyer colleagues,” said Kert Davies, one of Azari’s victims and the director of investigations at the Center for Climate Integrity.

Exxon has previously denied having any connection to the Israeli or his hacking campaign. The oil company has been under scrutiny after its $60 billion acquisition of competitor

Pioneer Natural Resources (NYSE:) but did not respond immediately to a comment request. Exxon’s lawyers in the case, Paul Weiss, also did not respond to an email seeking comment.Seven years ago, attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts were probing Exxon for documents and other evidence showing the company had hidden its knowledge concerning the impact of fossil fuel usage on climate change. A cohort of environmental activists backed the investigations and helped organize a media campaign dubbed #ExxonKnew.The Massachusetts investigation eventually turned into a lawsuit, which is ongoing.

Exxon pushed back, filing lawsuits that cited press articles, which suggested the activists were using underhanded tactics. The filing on Thursday is the first time Azari’s hacking activity has been directly linked to media leaks that showcased private emails exchanges and non-public communication. Bradley Campbell, president at the Conservation Law Foundation and another Azari victim, stated that the only thing they had in common was their “advocacy for holding Exxon Mobil accountable” for lying. “

Williams’ memo was filed ahead of next week’s expected sentencing of Azari, who pleaded guilty last year to hiring mercenary hackers to target his clients’ enemies.

Williams alleged that Azari, who has been in U.S. custody since 2019, made an average of just under $1 million a year by hiring digital spies to carry out “a massive computer hacking campaign that targeted thousands of victims worldwide. “

Azari’s lawyer, Barry Zone, did no immediately reply to an email seeking comment.

Azari was the subject of an investigation published last year by Reuters that revealed how he and other private eyes have used mercenary hackers to help wealthy clients gain an advantage in court battles. “Azari was responsible for the hacking scheme, by instructing groups of hackers to target certain victims. This included a group of Indian hackers.” prosecutors stated. The use of cyber mercenaries in order to interfere with the justice system has been gaining attention both within the United States as well as abroad. U.S. Authorities say Azari targeted other targets, including critics of now-defunct payment company Wirecard as well as a Mexican political party and “government officials in various African countries.”