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eBay will pay a $3 million fine over former employees' harassment campaign

eBay, a global e-commerce company based in San Jose, Calif., accepted responsibility for its former employees' actions in a 2019 harassment campaign, federal authorities said Thursday.
Marcio Jose Sanchez
/
AP
eBay, a global e-commerce company based in San Jose, Calif., accepted responsibility for its former employees' actions in a 2019 harassment campaign, federal authorities said Thursday.

eBay agreed to pay a $3 million fine to resolve criminal charges related to a 2019 harassment campaign its then-employees waged against a Massachusetts couple for their newsletter's coverage of the e-commerce company, federal authorities said Thursday. The retaliation scheme involved sending live insects, a funeral wreath and other disturbing deliveries to their home.

The Justice Department charged eBay with stalking, witness tampering and obstruction of justice after seven employees and contractors were convicted of felony charges for their roles in the scheme.

eBay accepted responsibility for its employees' actions as part of a deferred prosecution agreement, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Massachusetts. The charges against the company could be dismissed if eBay complies with the terms of the agreement, which include the company retaining an independent monitor to oversee the company for three years. The $3 million criminal penalty is the maximum fine for the six charges.

"eBay engaged in absolutely horrific, criminal conduct," Acting U.S. Attorney Joshua Levy said Thursday. "The company's employees and contractors involved in this campaign put the victims through pure hell, in a petrifying campaign aimed at silencing their reporting and protecting the eBay brand."

In August 2019, Jim Baugh, eBay's former senior director of Safety and Security, and six other security team staff members targeted Ina and David Steiner, the cofounding editor and publisher of EcommerceBytes, a trade publication that reports on e-commerce companies, including eBay.

EcommerceBytes' reporting had become a source of frustration among eBay executives, according to court documents. Soon after Ina wrote a story about eBay's lawsuit accusing Amazon of poaching its sellers, eBay's then-CEO, Devin Wenig, messaged another executive, saying: "If we are ever going to take her down..now is the time," court records show.

The executives and other employees proceeded to carry out an intimidation campaign that included: Creating Twitter accounts under false names and using them to send threatening private DMs to Ina; publicly posting the Steiners' home address and encouraging strangers to visit their home for sexual encounters and other activities; and installing a GPS device on the Steiners' car.

eBay employees also sent to the Steiners' home live spiders and cockroaches, a funeral wreath, a fetal pig and a book about surviving the loss of a spouse.

"We were targeted because we gave eBay sellers a voice and because we reported facts that top executives didn't like publicly laid bare," the Steiners said in statement on their website on Thursday. "After today's announcement, we remain determined to push for answers and do whatever we possibly can to ensure that no corporation ever feels that the option exists for them to squash a person's First Amendment rights."

The Steiners filed a civil lawsuit last year against eBay, then-CEO Wenig and other former employees. A trial date is scheduled for March, according to the couple.

Wenig, who resigned in 2019, has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing.

"The company's conduct in 2019 was wrong and reprehensible," eBay CEO Jamie Iannone said in a said in a statement on Thursday. "Since these events occurred, new leaders have joined the company and eBay has strengthened its policies, procedures, controls and training. eBay remains committed to upholding high standards of conduct and ethics and to making things right with the Steiners."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emma Bowman