eBay manager imprisoned for harassment of journalists the CEO wanted to “take down”

A person's hand inserting a key into the lock on a jail-cell door.
Getty Images | Charles O’Rear

A former eBay security manager who pleaded guilty for his role in a cyberstalking conspiracy was sentenced to 18 months in prison yesterday.

Philip Cooke, former senior manager of security operations for eBay’s Global Security Team, pleaded guilty in October 2020 to one count of conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and one count of conspiracy to commit witness tampering. He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison on each charge, with the two sentences to be served concurrently, according to an order issued in US District Court for the District of Massachusetts. He was also fined $15,000 and sentenced to supervised release of three years after he gets out of prison.

The Department of Justice alleged that in 2019, Cooke helped plan and attempt to cover up the stalking of Ina and David Steiner of Natick, Massachusetts, who run the news website EcommerceBytes. Cooke was one of seven eBay employees accused of harassment involving sending threatening messages and deliveries of live cockroaches, a funeral wreath, and a bloody pig mask to the couple’s home. Several conspirators allegedly traveled from California to Massachusetts to conduct surveillance on the couple, but Cooke was not among them. Cooke wasn’t included in the initial charges filed in June 2020 but was charged a few weeks later.

eBay executives were angered by EcommerceBytes’ news coverage of eBay. Text messages show that then-Chief Communications Officer Steven Wymer wrote, “We are going to crush this lady,” referring to editor Ina Steiner. In another text, then-CEO Devin Wenig allegedly wrote to Wymer, “Take her down.” Wenig and Wymer were not charged. They were referred to as “Executive 1” and “Executive 2” in court documents but subsequently identified in news reports. Wenig resigned, and Wymer was fired.

Four others pleaded guilty, await sentencing

Four other former eBay security employees are scheduled for sentencing hearings in late September after pleading guilty in October 2020 to the same charges of conspiracy to commit cyberstalking and conspiracy to tamper with witnesses. They are waiting to be sentenced. The employees are Brian Gilbert, former senior manager of special operations for eBay’s Global Security Team; Stephanie Stockwell, former manager of eBay’s Global Intelligence Center; Stephanie Popp, eBay’s former senior manager of Global Intelligence; and Veronica Zea, a former eBay contractor who was an intelligence analyst in eBay Global Intelligence.

eBay’s former Senior Director of Safety & Security James Baugh and former Director of Global Resiliency David Harville pleaded not guilty and are still facing charges. Additionally, the Steiners filed a civil lawsuit against eBay, Wenig, Wymer, Baugh, Harville, and the former eBay employees who pleaded guilty. The Steiners’ lawsuit said they now suffer from “permanent psychological trauma and damage” because of the cyberstalking, hampering their ability to operate their business. The Steiners allege that Wenig and Wymer “provided the other Defendants with carte blanche authority to terminate the reporting of the Steiners by whatever means necessary.”

Cooke had asked for a sentence of home confinement instead of prison time, claiming that he warned fellow employees against the worst parts of the plan such as sending threatening deliveries, publishing their home address, conducting surveillance in person, and installing a GPS tracking device on the Steiners’ vehicle. Cooke’s sentencing memorandum also said he had a drinking problem that was exacerbated by a “drinking culture” at eBay. Cooke worked in eBay’s security division after retiring from the Santa Clara Police Department.

“Good plan and cover”

The DOJ said that Cooke helped plan the harassment and coverup attempts. “Good plan and cover,” Cooke wrote in a WhatsApp message to co-conspirators, according to a charging document. Cooke’s message also advised fellow employees to find “a friendly” contact in the local police department and to “be convincing so [police] don’t start looking to find video of who purchased the gift cards” that eBay employees used to send the pig masks and other harassing deliveries to the Steiners. Cooke responded with two thumbs-up emojis after Gilbert wrote, “We can control the local cop and maybe provide a video from a different Santa Clara Safeway,” the court document said.

More details on the case are available in this article we published last week. eBay fired the employees and cooperated in the investigation.