A former security supervisor at eBay received an 18-month federal prison sentence Tuesday for his role in a bizarre campaign of cyberstalking aimed at a Natick couple that ran an online newsletter often critical of the e-commerce giant, authorities said.
Philip Cooke, 56, of San Jose, Calif., had pleaded guilty in US District Court in Boston in October 2020 to conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and conspiracy to tamper with a witness, legal filings show.
On Tuesday, prosecutors said, Cooke was sentenced to 18 months in prison, and three years of supervised release, including a 12-month period of home detention. He was also ordered to pay a $15,000 fine and perform 100 hours of community service, according to the US attorney’s office.
Cooke was one of seven former eBay employees charged in connection with the stalking, which authorities said targeted Ina and David Steiner, a Natick couple who recently filed a federal lawsuit against the company and other parties linked to the harassment.
Rosemary Scapicchio, a prominent Boston attorney representing the couple in their civil suit, said via phone after Monday’s hearing that her clients “were relieved” that Cooke received time behind bars, calling it “the first step in their pursuit of accountability” for all those involved.
“There needs to be corporate accountability” as well, Scapicchio said.
The Steiners’ online postings were followed closely by eBay leaders, who often took issue with the newsletter, prosecutors have said.
Beginning in August 2019, prosecutors have said, the defendants began executing their plot.
“A three week nightmare followed,” prosecutors said in court papers. “[A]nonymous and profane demands that the couple stop reporting about eBay; the publication of their home address on Twitter and threats to visit them there; the delivery of live insects and a funeral wreath; Craigslist posts inviting all comers to sexual encounters at their home; a black van that followed the husband as he drove around Natick, and so much more.”
In the court papers, prosecutors sought a 30-month federal prison term for Cooke, a former police captain whom the government said “should have appreciated the impact a fraction of this conduct would have on the victims.”
Instead, prosecutors wrote, 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” years earlier.
“As cyberstalking frequently does, Cooke’s crime cut the Victims off from their community,” prosecutors wrote, adding that the Steiners “cancelled social engagements and a trip to see family and friends out of town, fearful that their stalkers would follow, and become others’ stalkers.”
Cooke’s attorney, Susan G. Winkler, requested a term of home confinement for her client in a separate filing last week.
“While Mr. Cooke joined the plan to engage in a ‘white knight strategy’ to send harassing and anonymous Twitter messages to soften up the victims for eBay’s security team’s assistance, and viewed at least some draft messages in connection with that scheme, he was not personally involved in two or more separate ‘instances’ of harassing the same victim,” Winkler wrote.
She said her client has suffered mightily in the wake of the criminal charges.
“Mr. Cooke has endured extensive punishment already,” Winkler wrote. “He lost a job he enjoyed, was devastated by the disappointment he caused his family, and was humiliated in his community — a community he honorably and faithfully served for 30 years.”
Prosecutors have identified the other former eBay workers charged in connection with the case as David Harville, 48, of New York; Stephanie Stockwell, 26, of Redwood City, Calif.; and San Jose, Calif., residents James Baugh, 45; Stephanie Popp, 32; Veronica Zea, 26; and Brian Gilbert, 51.
Popp, Stockwell, Zia, and Gilbert have all pleaded guilty to related charges, with sentencings slated for Sept. 28 and Sept. 30, records show. Harville and Baugh’s charges are still pending.
In a June 2020 statement, eBay said it launched a “comprehensive investigation” into the matter with outside legal counsel once law enforcement informed them of the alleged harassment in August 2019.
An independent committee formed by eBay’s board of directors found the company “took these allegations very seriously from the outset. Upon learning of them, eBay moved quickly to investigate thoroughly and take appropriate action,” the company said at the time.
The company added that it “holds its employees to high standards of conduct and ethics and will continue to take appropriate action to ensure these standards are followed.”
But Scapicchio noted Tuesday that eBay had promoted Cooke in late 2019 after firing multiple codefendants.
Prosecutors said in court filings that the company didn’t fire Cooke until shortly after he was identified in June 2020 as “Supervisor 1” in legal documents that revealed the contents of an online thread linking him to the plot. Previously, during the company’s own review, prosecutors said, eBay had taken an image of Cooke’s phone, but the photo did not include the app thread “or any messages regarding the harassment. It is not clear when in relation to these events Cooke deleted” the messages.
“They only fired him when his conduct became public,” Scapicchio said. “You’re supposed to be taking action because it’s the right thing to do, and not because you got caught.”