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Private detective who led a hacking attack against climate activists gets prison time

Climate activists protest on the first day of the ExxonMobil trial outside the New York State Supreme Court building on 2019. Last month, prosecutors described how ExxonMobil tried to take advantage of material stolen by hackers working for Aviram Azari.
AFP via Getty Images
Climate activists protest on the first day of the ExxonMobil trial outside the New York State Supreme Court building on 2019. Last month, prosecutors described how ExxonMobil tried to take advantage of material stolen by hackers working for Aviram Azari.

An Israeli private investigator who orchestrated a global hacking operation that targeted American climate activists and foundations was sentenced in federal court to nearly seven years in prison after pleading guilty.

The emails obtained through the hacking were published in the American media. Federal prosecutors said that oil giant ExxonMobil then used the news reports to fight multiple state investigations.

The activists were victims of a hacking attack led by private investigator Aviram Azari. Federal prosecutors in New York say Azari was a key figure in a "massive computer hacking campaign that targeted thousands of victims worldwide," including climate activists in the U.S., government officials in Africa, members of a Mexican political party and critics of a German company called Wirecard.

"I ask for forgiveness," Azari said in federal court in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan. "You don't know everything."

The U.S. government hasn't said who hired Azari to target the climate activists. But in an October sentencing memo, federal prosecutors in New York described how ExxonMobil tried to take advantage of the material that Azari's group stole.

Prosecutors noted a private email between climate activists that ExxonMobil had publicized on its website. The document was about a 2016 meeting to convince the public that ExxonMobil was a "corrupt institution" that pushed the world toward "climate chaos and grave harm" because of its decades-long campaign to cast doubt on global warming.

The page on Exxon's website that cited the leaked 2016 email appears to have been taken down. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that federal prosecutors were focusing part of their investigation on how that document ended up online.

In addition to referencing the leaked 2016 email, prosecutors said ExxonMobil's lawyers cited news stories based on hacked documents as part of their defense in litigation brought against the company by several states. The articles based on the leaked documents related to investigations brought by New York and Massachusetts.

Those news stories "appeared designed to undermine the integrity" of the investigations into ExxonMobil or of groups that were supposedly influencing the probes, prosecutors in the Azari case said. ExxonMobil won a lawsuit brought against it by the New York Attorney General. Other cases, including the one in Massachusetts, are still pending.

"Exxon was using hacked information and other related materials to try to evade responsibility for their decades of climate deception," says Lee Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Family Fund and one of Azari's victims. The fund was created by several heirs of John D. Rockefeller, who founded Exxon's predecessor Standard Oil. Another philanthropy founded by the Rockefeller family, The Rockefeller Foundation, is a donor to NPR.

Federal prosecutors in the Azari case did not accuse Exxon of wrongdoing. However, their account of how the oil and gas company used the stolen documents allows the public to "make connections that the government hasn't alleged," says Daniel Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School and a former federal prosecutor.

Exxon said in a statement that it has done nothing wrong. "ExxonMobil has no knowledge of Azari nor have we been involved in any hacking activities," the company said.

Peter Frumhoff, who was chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists until 2021 and one of Azari's victims, told prosecutors that the hacking campaign had a "chilling effect" on his group's efforts to fight climate change.

Wasserman said in court on Thursday that the hacking made him worry for his family's safety. He said his daughter was stalked electronically.

Azari was arrested in 2019 at John F. Kennedy International Airport on his way to Disneyland. He pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to commit computer hacking, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. In addition to the prison sentencing, Azari got three years of probation and was ordered to forfeit more than $4.8 million that clients paid his firm to manage the hacking campaigns.

Azari's lawyers had requested a prison sentence of about five years. They said Azari suffered from poor health and received sparse medical attention while he was in custody awaiting sentencing.

The government said Azari should be sentenced to at least nine years in prison. The U.S. Attorney's office didn't respond to a message seeking comment on whether Azari will get credit for time served.

The sentencing memo in Azari's case came up earlier in November in a climate lawsuit in Puerto Rico, where more than a dozen municipalities are suing ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies.

The memo "heavily implicates ExxonMobil's participation in the hacking scheme, likely in furtherance and defense of the Defendants' racketeering enterprise," lawyers for the Puerto Rico municipalities said in a court filing.

The municipalities say fossil fuel companies and industry groups conspired to mislead the public about climate change. ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies have said the lawsuit should be dismissed.

A number of similar lawsuits have been filed against ExxonMobil and other oil and gas companies by states and localities.

Earlier investigations found that for decades, ExxonMobil tried to sow confusion about climate change, even though its own scientists had begun warning executives as early as 1977 that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels were warming the planet, posing severe risks to human beings.

"[They] were aware of the climate catastrophe — as their own memos referred to it — that continued burning of fossil fuels would cause. They deceived the public about that. And now there is a crime that was committed for their benefit," says Wasserman of the Rockefeller Family Fund.

"I'm not suggesting they knew about it or they authorized it," Wasserman adds. "But clearly, somebody was engaged with the hacking of climate activists to try to help Exxon out."

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Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they're being impacted by rising temperatures.
Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.