Intense finger-pointing between former eBay executives continued this week over who, ultimately, was to blame for a bizarre and terrifying harassment campaign carried out by former employees against a Natick couple.
James Baugh and David Harville, former senior-level employees at eBay, were sentenced at Boston's Moakley Federal Court on Thursday to prison time for cyberstalking Ina and David Steiner over several weeks in 2019. But Baugh’s attorneys argue that higher-up employees should share in the blame — and criminal liability.
The Steiners' online commerce blog and newsletter, eCommerceBytes, had been critical of eBay's leadership and the company's treatment of small sellers. Company executives, Incensed by the Steiners' coverage, suggested they "take down" the newsletter's editor.
The following harassment campaign included sending a string of intimidating packages to the couple’s home: a box of live spiders, a pig mask, a book on surviving the death of a spouse, and a bereavement wreath. Employees also criticized the newsletter and threatened the Steiners in online messages and, later, shared the couple's home address in a Craigslist post.
Soon, the involved employees ramped up their campaign. Some traveled from California to Natick to surveil the couple’s home, attempt to install a GPS tracking device on their car, and follow David Steiner in an unmarked van as he drove through town. The Boston Globe published the couple’s account of the ordeal last summer.
But the sentencing memo submitted by Baugh’s attorney Thursday claimed that, while Baugh recognized he was “guilty of very serious offenses that caused severe harm to real people,” there were people further up the chain of command who were ultimately responsible for the crimes.
“Yes, Mr. Baugh is the most senior eBay employee the government chose to prosecute, and bears an extra measure of responsibility for his supervisory role,” reads the memo filed by Baugh’s attorney, William Fick. “But stopping there ignores the broader reality of what happened. ... Mr. Baugh faced intense, relentless pressure from multiple executives (who have evaded criminal responsibility), including the CEO Devin Wenig … to do something, anything, about the ‘threat’ which, they knew and told Mr. Baugh repeatedly, could not be solved through ordinary ‘lawyer’ tools.”
An attorney for Harville, the other employee sentenced Thursday, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Wenig’s attorney told GBH News Friday in response to a request for comment that the former CEO had “absolutely zero knowledge” of Baugh’s and others’ actions “as was fully confirmed by an independent investigation by an outside law firm, by eBay itself, and by individuals who were involved.”
Another former eBay employee, Philip Cooke, was already sentenced to 18 months in prison last summer. Four others pleaded guilty to various related crimes and await sentencing.
But blame game aside, the facts of the case — and the traumatic impact it had on the couple — are not in question.
“They’ve been forever changed in the way that they interact with the world, and the way that they interact with each other, and the way that they run their business,” said Rosemary Scapicchio, an attorney representing the Steiners in a related ongoing civil suit against eBay, Wenig and other individuals, seeking damages to be awarded by a jury. “It's just imploded their whole lives.”
She added that when the Natick couple received the funeral wreath, “they absolutely thought it was a death threat.”
Scappichio also raised questions about how the company itself avoided criminal charges in the matter. Lawyers for eBay met with the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston in March 2021 and gave a presentation about why the company should not be criminally charged, as reported last spring by the Globe after Judge Patti Saris ordered the company to disclose the presentation.
“These Fortune 500 companies that have endless amounts of money get treated differently in the U.S. attorney’s office than everybody else,” Scappichio told GBH News Friday. “And it's unfair. I represent a lot of Black and brown defendants, and they don’t get the opportunity to go in and make PowerPoint presentations about, you know, how they're not responsible."
In a statement, eBay told GBH News Friday, “The events from 2019 should never have happened, and as eBay expressed to the Steiners, we are very sorry for what they endured.”
The company did not directly respond to questions about the evidence the company provided the U.S. attorney’s office during the March 2021 meeting. The U.S. attorney’s office also did not answer questions Friday about that meeting, referring instead to the public statement released after the sentencing of Baugh and Harville.