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The Eichenwald Saga

More Secret Payments by Former New York Times Reporter to Web Porn Star Surface in Nashville Courtroom


Nashville, Tennessee.

A federal court house in Nashville today was witness to the ironic spectacle of lawyers for former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald pleading with federal district judge Aleta Trauger to shield her courtroom proceedings from the public by keeping under seal all documents and submissions and having legal arguments about these requests for secrecy also conducted privately in her chambers.

Judge Trauger denied these requests, remarking that the public and the press have a right to know. The subsequent proceedings in the courtroom strongly suggest why Eichenwald’s lawyers tried to keep a lid on the proceedings.

Both the New York Times and its former reporter were embarrassed earlier this year by the disclosure that Eichenwald had paid his prime source for a sensational 2005 story about web porn the sum of $2,000 even before actually meeting this source, Justin Berry.

Berry is the young man who posted masturbation videos of himself on the net when he was a minor — then, after turning 18, became a criminal by making and distributing porn using other underage teens.

After the $2000 check surfaced New York Times public editor Byron Calame wrote a fierce piece in the Times stigmatizing Eichenwald’s rationales as “baloney”. Calame’s unsparing column included this passage:

"I should have told my editors,” Mr. Eichenwald wrote of the $2,000 transaction, which he said had simply slipped his mind. “Once the reporting began … a financial transaction from a month before … just slipped away amid the 18 hour days, seven days a week of turmoil and chaos.”

We learned in court today that it was not just a matter of one $2,000 payment (which Eichenwald says was repaid by Berry’s grandmother). Eichenwald used a fake name and address to give Berry even more cash before he started working on the story. It seems these covert payments also slipped Eichenwald’s mind, even when jolted by the sight of his $2,000 check to Berry which surfaced in evidentiary proceedings in a Michigan courtroom earlier this year.
During the time he received Eichenwald’s money, Berry revived an inactive sex site by posting freshly minted child porn images.

The new details have emerged here because Eichenwald’s blockbuster 2005 Times story led to arrests and convictions of four men who had helped Berry with his child porn site, even as Berry received prosecutorial immunity. Lawyers for one convicted man, Tim Richards, have continued looking into hard-drive evidence for material to lessen Richards’ prison time when he is sentenced in a few weeks, or to support a motion for a new trial.

While looking into the hard drives, Richards’ lawyer Kimberly Hodde told federal court Judge Aleta Trauger on Tuesday, investigators discovered that in May or June 2005, someone calling himself Andrew McDonald used PayPal to send money to Berry from Dallas. "McDonald" used a Yahoo address, and one from AOL that the FBI earlier identified as Kurt Eichenwald’s. Dallas is Eichenwald’s home.

In court, Richards’ lawyers explained that they subpoenaed PayPal and got back a fake snail-mail address and two credit card numbers used to make the "Andrew McDonald" payments. They then subpoenaed the credit card companies to find out the real name of the person who owns the cards. They also subpoenaed AOL and Yahoo.

In response, Eichenwald’s personal attorney Bruce Perkins filed motions to quash the subpoenas and seal all filings related to the motions – including that they’re about Kurt Eichenwald. The former Times reporter’s name was even blacked out of the only documents posted on the DoJ’s federal court case website that are unsealed.

Tim Richards’ attorney Hodde argued that the subpoenas should not be quashed because the information they ask for is relevant to Richards’ sentencing. The Paypal payments, Hodde asserted, point to the possibility that Eichenwald "assisted in orchestrating the revival" of Berry’s illegal, child porn website. Richards, Hodde said, will use the PayPal and credit card information to argue that he was entrapped by Berry and his cohorts, one of whom, Richards will argue, was Eichenwald. Eichenwald’s lawyer Perkins dismissed Hodde’s arguments as "conspiracy theories."

Judge Trauger kept the court open to the public and used Eichenwald’s name many times. She turned down motions to quash the subpoenas. She said payments Eichenwald made to Berry were not previously known to the press or the government, and they have "some relevance to the defense." She said she will consider the new evidence when she sentences Richards, because the timing of Eichenwald’s payments to Berry is "so close to some of the timing involved in this case."

Trauger also refused to keep Eichenwald’s voluminous filings sealed. They will be opened to review in a few days, after they’ve been redacted to remove his credit card numbers.

Tim Richards’ DOJ prosecutor, Carren Doughtrey, attended the hearing, and so did FBI agent Brook Donohue. When asked by this reporter if Eichenwald is under criminal investigation on child pornography-related charges, Donohue said, "I can’t tell you." "We’re not supposed to comment," said Doughtrey.

CounterPunch left phone messages with Eichenwald’s former Times editor, Larry Ingrassia, asking if the Times knew about Eichenwald’s pseudonymous PayPal transactions with Berry. Ingrassia has not thus far responded. Challenging the secrecy bid of Eichenwald’s lawyers at today’s hearing was Douglas Pierce, a Nashville attorney acting for CounterPunch.

DEBBIE NATHAN is a New York City-based journalist who writes about sexual politics and immigration. She can be reached at naess2@gmail.com