By Joe Nelson, The Sun
Posted: 03/28/14, 7:53 PM PDT |
When a prestigious El Segundo-based private investigations firm was hired to investigate the key witness in a major San Bernardino County corruption case, they subcontracted the work — or at least part of it — to a rural Alabama woman who had no license and a spotty criminal record.
That woman, according to court documents, used information provided by the El Segundo firm Thomas Dale & Associates to impersonate the witness and illegally gain access to his phone records.
While the incident has become a flash point in the San Bernardino County case, the practice of hiring independent contractors to develop potentially illegal information is not all that unusual, according to experts.
“It goes on all the time,” said Rob Douglas, a former Washington D.C.-based private investigator of 20 years and nationally recognized identity theft and information security expert. “It is frequent enough that I believe for hundreds of private investigators across the country, it’s a routine way of doing business.”
No charges have been filed against the woman, Theresa C. Speer, aka Theresa C. Paul, of Fairhope, Ala., or Thomas Dale & Associates, the company that subcontracted her services, but prosecutors say the investigation, which began three years ago, is ongoing. They say Speer hijacked the phone records of former San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus, a key witness in the ongoing criminal investigation into the county’s $102 million legal settlement with Colonies Partners LP.
Stephen P. Jones, the attorney representing Thomas Dale & Associates, declined to comment for this story.
According to court documents, Speer was hired by Thomas Dale & Associates, which touts on its website a client base that includes NBC Universal, Paramount Pictures and CNN. TDA was hired by attorney Stephen G. Larson, a retired U.S. District Court judge-turned-defense attorney who now represents Colonies co-managing partner Jeff Burum, who is charged with bribing public officials to settle his partnership’s legal case.
Speer could face up to a half-dozen felony charges, including criminal conspiracy and illegally accessing a computer network, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in San Bernardino Superior Court.
The San Bernardino County case is similar to other high-profile incidents in which investigators obtained private information under false pretenses — a strategy so common it’s been given a name: pretexting.
The most noteworthy of these is the spying scandal at Hewlett-Packard in which HP executives hired private investigators to help determine who was leaking confidential company information to the press.
In October 2006, the state Attorney General’s Office charged HP Chairwoman Patricia Dunn, who launched the investigation into the news leak, HP’s former chief ethics officer Kevin Hunsaker, and three outside private investigators with four felonies. Dunn maintained her innocence, testifying before Congress she had believed the actions of the private investigators were legal. All charges against her were subsequently dropped.
Hunsaker and two of the private investigators, under a plea agreement, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and were sentenced to 96 hours of community service, and the third investigator, Bryan Wagner, was convicted of the federal offenses of wire fraud and identity theft and sentenced to three months in federal lockup.
Though laws have been passed to protect consumers and deter such activity, prosecutors have had a hard time making cases. Douglas notes that in many cases, private investigators are hired by large firms with deep pockets, and pursuing a pretexting case can be complex and very expensive.
“It is the major law firms in this country that are hiring these people,” Douglas said.
The investigation into Speer and Thomas Dale & Associates sprouted from San Bernardino County’s Colonies corruption case, in which Rancho Cucamonga developer Burum and three former county officials stand accused of conspiracy and bribery. Prosecutors allege Burum, former county Supervisor Paul Biane, former Assistant Assessor and labor union president Jim Erwin, and Mark Kirk, former chief of staff for supervisor Gary Ovitt — conspired to facilitate a $102 million legal settlement between Burum’s real estate investor group, Colonies Partners LP, and the county for $102 million in November 2006.
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