Online retailer eBay has agreed to pay a $3m (£2.4m) fine to resolve criminal charges over employees who harassed a couple by sending live spiders, cockroaches to their home.
David and Ina Steiner also had a funeral wreath, a bloody pig mask, and a book about surviving the loss of a spouse, show up at their door, while their home address was posted online with announcements inviting strangers to yard sales and parties.
Mr and Mrs Steiner, who live in Massachusetts, produced an online newsletter called EcommerceBytes, which had upset eBay executives with its coverage.
The Department of Justice charged eBay with stalking and other offences – more than three years after the employees involved were prosecuted in the extensive scheme to intimidate the couple.
The company has now entered into a legal agreement that could result in the charges against them being dismissed if it complies with certain conditions, the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts has said.
The harassment started in 2019 after Mrs Steiner wrote a story about a lawsuit brought by eBay that accused Amazon of poaching its sellers, according to court records.
Around 30 minutes after the article was published, eBay’s then CEO, Devin Wenig, sent another top executive a message saying: “If you are ever going to take her down… now is the time,” according to court documents.
The executive sent Mr Wenig’s message to James Baugh, who was eBay’s senior director of safety and security, and called Mrs Steiner a “biased troll who needs to get BURNED DOWN.”
Baugh was among seven former employees who ultimately pleaded guilty to charges in the case.
He was sentenced in 2022 to almost five years in prison. Another former executive, David Harville, was sentenced to two years.
Wenig, who stepped down as CEO in 2019, was not criminally charged in the case and has denied having any knowledge of the harassment campaign or ever telling anyone to do anything illegal.
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In the civil case, his lawyers have said the “take her down” quote was taken out of context and the natural inference should be that he was referring to taking “lawful action,” not “a series of bizarre criminal acts”.
Baugh, whom prosecutors described as the mastermind of the scheme, at one point recruited Harville to go with him to Boston to spy on the Steiners, authorities said.
Baugh, Harville and another eBay employee went to the couple’s home in the hopes of installing a GPS tracker on their car, prosecutors said.
The trio found the garage locked, so Harville bought tools with a plan to break in, prosecutors said.
Harville’s lawyers have said he had no involvement in or knowledge about the threatening messages or deliveries sent by his colleagues.
Baugh’s lawyers have said their client faced relentless pressure from Mr Wenig and other executives to do something about the Steiners.
Baugh alleged he was then pushed out by the company when “an army of outside lawyers descended to conduct an ‘internal investigation’ aimed at saving the company and its top executives from prosecution”.