The latest twist in the sexual assault allegations against powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein is that he and his lawyers hired teams of private investigators to gather incriminating evidence against his accusers and block journalists from going public with the victims' stories. And some of the private investigators used tactics straight out of the "Mission Impossible" handbook.
According to an investigative report by The New Yorker, a female intelligence agent employed by the Israeli firm Black Cube assumed at least two false identities to gain the confidence of actress Rose McGowan, one of Weinstein's accusers, and journalists from several newspapers and magazines who were working on unflattering stories about Weinstein's alleged history of sexual harassment and assault.
The Black Cube agent — since identified as former Israeli Defense Force officer and aspiring actress Stella Penn Pechanac — originally contacted McGowan through her literary agent claiming to be "Diana Filip," a U.K. wealth management executive claiming to work for a London-based firm called Rueben Capital Partners. She claimed to be launching an initiative called "Women in Focus" to fight discrimination against women in the workplace. Pechanac offered McGowan $60,000 to speak at a kick-off gala for the group and flew to both Los Angeles and New York to meet with the actress in person.
At the same time, Pechanac was emailing and calling journalists from New York magazine, The New York Times and The New Yorker, sometimes under the guise of the fictitious women's advocate Filip, and sometimes as "Anna," a woman who wanted to share her own story of being harassed by Weinstein. In one meeting with journalist Ben Wallace, Pechanac asked to sit closer to him, presumably to record the conversation.
Creating Attorney-Client Privilege
The goal of all these cloak-and-dagger shenanigans was to gather information that could potentially discredit Weinstein's accusers and the journalists preparing to expose the allegations against him. Lawyers frequently hire private investigators to run exhaustive background checks on witnesses who could testify against their clients. Attorney-client privilege is established when the investigators run their findings back through the law firm, potentially protecting the findings from disclosure. What's unusual about the Weinstein case is the unethical and borderline illegal tactics that Weinstein's spies used to gather their counterintelligence.
Brian Willingham is a New York-based private investigator and president of the Diligentia Group. As a licensed private investigator, Willingham has done plenty of work for lawyers, including conducting deep background checks on individuals, running surveillance and even digging through the occasional dumpster. What he would absolutely never do is assume a fake identity.
"In no way, shape or form do I represent myself as somebody that I'm not to elicit information," says Willingham. "There are huge ethical issues and potentially legal issues that could come up."
For example, Willingham warns that evidence gathered under false pretenses would probably be thrown out if a harassment case actually went to trial.
It's unclear whether Black Cube's agents broke any U.S. laws by posing as women's rights advocates and assault victims to gain audience with accusers and journalists. No criminal fraud seems to have occurred, and the tactics they used were more along the lines of social engineering or "catfishing," both of which are legal as long as it doesn't involve identity theft or extortion.
The New York Times reported that Black Cube isn't licensed as a private investigator in the state of New York, which is against the law, but the paper quickly noted that the rule is "rarely enforced."
Journalist or Spy?
One of Weinstein's lawyers' other tactics, according to contracts leaked to The New Yorker, was to pay an investigative journalist $40,000 to conduct interviews with accusers and fellow journalists and report back to Black Cube. The hiring of both active and former journalists as private investigators is a longstanding if distasteful tradition that's not only unethical, but further undermines public trust in the media.
Willingham says that he would never risk ruining his reputation and livelihood posing as a journalist (or much less law enforcement), but that there are "clearly firms that will go outside of those bounds."
"There are always clients or individuals who want to push you over the gray line, and those are just not clients I'm willing to work with," says Willingham. "What Black Cube is doing is absolutely unethical and I wouldn't consider it, but I don't really know if it's illegal."
Black Cube was contracted to be paid $600,000 for its work on behalf of Weinstein's lawyers. In a statement to The New Yorker, the firm declined to discuss the specifics of its tactics, but insisted that "Black Cube applies high moral standards to its work, and operates in full compliance with the law of any jurisdiction in which it operates — strictly following the guidance and legal opinions provided by leading law firms from around the world."
Christian West is the founder and CEO of AS Solution, an executive protection firm. When West takes on a new client — folks on "the highest end of the Fortune 100" — he has his licensed private investigators conduct a "deep dive" internet and dark web search to make sure that there's no compromising personal information out there about the client, like his home address or social security number. Then they run a threat assessment to find out if there are any disgruntled former business partners lurking around who could pose a risk.
"It's actually relatively unsexy," says West, who calls Black Cube's handling of the Weinstein investigation "a super extreme case."