Former eBay CEO Devin Wenig can’t be held responsible for a bizarre harassment campaign conducted by his subordinates against a Natick couple in 2019, Wenig’s lawyers said in a court filing Thursday.
The couple, Ina and David Steiner, sued Wenig, eBay, and almost a dozen other former employees in July. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Boston, alleges that the harassment campaign constituted emotional and psychological torture and seeks unspecified damages.
Seven former employees have been charged and five have already pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges for their part in the harassment, which included sending the Steiners a bloody pig mask and surveilling their house.
Wenig was never charged with a crime and his lawyers argued in the motion to dismiss that there was not enough evidence to link the former CEO to the misdeeds of others.
“The fact that Plaintiffs Ina and David Steiner were subjected to a vile harassment campaign does not mean that former eBay CEO Devin Wenig is liable for the damages that they and their company, Steiner Associates LLC, allegedly suffered as a result,” Wenig’s lawyers, Abbe Lowell with the law firm Winston & Strawn and Boston attorney Martin Weinberg, wrote in a 45-page filing.
The harassment campaign occurred in 2019 after Wenig complained to his subordinates in texts and e-mails about the Steiners, who ran an online newsletter and website called EcommerceBytes that was occasionally critical of the company. Wenig, who left eBay in September 2019 with a $57 million severance package, has previously said he had no knowledge of the harassment campaign.
But the lawsuit charged that Wenig’s messages to subordinates gave them “carte blanche authority to terminate the reporting of the Steiners by whatever means necessary.” In one text message, Wenig told his chief communications officer to “take her down,” referring to Ina Steiner.
Wenig’s lawyers disputed the importance of the text. “Claims against Wenig rest on three words in a lone text, taken out of context, that cannot bear the weight that Plaintiffs place on them,” they wrote.
The “take her down” phrase appeared after a series of conversations in which the chief communications officer discussed a publicity campaign highlighting that the Steiners’ newsletter coverage “may be colored by the substantial advertising dollars that it takes from Amazon, one of eBay’s direct competitors,” the lawyers wrote in the brief.
Rosemary Scapicchio, the Steiners’ lawyer, responded that counting the words in Wenig’s message was irrelevant to his culpability.
“Defendant Wenig attempts to minimize his role in the stalking and torturing of the Steiners by focusing on the number of words in his order to take them down,” Scapicchio told the Globe. “Whether defendant Wenig used three words or three thousand words to issue the order to his co-conspirators to take the Steiners down, his intent was clear. Despite his protests to the contrary, he was the captain of the ship, he gave the order and he is responsible.”
Following the CEO’s complaints, employees in eBay’s security department sent the Steiners threatening messages on Twitter and ordered bizarre deliveries including live insects, a funeral wreath, and a 4 a.m. pizza delivery.
In August 2019, several eBay employees traveled to Boston and repeatedly drove past the Steiners’ house in rented vehicles. Natick police quickly made a connection between the harassment and the employees. They called in the FBI, leading to federal charges against the seven former employees involved in the plot.
Wenig continued to deny any knowledge of the harassment campaign in a statement released by a spokesperson along with Thursday’s filing.
“What happened to the Steiners was unequivocally wrong,” the statement read. “Mr. Wenig has championed ethics at every step of his career. He did not know of, approve, or authorize what occurred, and the results of an independent investigation confirm that fact. As explained in his motion to dismiss, the Steiners’ complaint alleges no factual or legal basis for including him in the complaint that was filed.”